Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | To maximize the $65 billion in federal funds available to expand high-speed internet, governments must first identify the biggest barriers to access in their communities.
A lasting image from early in the pandemic is of two students sitting on the curb in a fast-food restaurant parking lot, using the restaurant’s Wi-Fi to complete their schoolwork. The pandemic exposed how much our lives have moved online—from work to education to health care to government services—and the deep divide between those with and without internet access.
The need to expand high-speed internet access is clear, but broadband data does not deliver an accurate picture of where households lack connectivity and does not measure the impact of affordability and other obstacles like connection speed that go beyond just physical access to a broadband connection. To fully address the digital divide, policymakers need more detailed information on affordability, reliability, speed and inequities in access to make sound decisions about broadband investments for their communities.
The $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $65 billion to help ensure that every American has access to a high-quality broadband connection. Policymakers have a historic opportunity to help close the digital divide, but they will need better data to achieve this goal.
At a recent White House convening, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo made clear that state funding from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program would be contingent on each state’s plans to fully address community needs and identify priority areas for broadband investments. To maximize the impact of the new law, which also includes a Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, state and local leaders will need to quickly gather the best available data, including accurate maps of where service is currently available.
The good news is the federal government has provided the guidance and resources in both the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act to help communities pull together the needed data. Specifically, the $350 billion included in ARPA’s state and local fiscal recovery funds plan can be used to build governments’ data infrastructure and capacity. State and local leaders must embrace the chance to use these one-time resources to invest in collecting and analyzing data.
A report released earlier this year by the NewDEAL Forum, “Bridging the Digital Divide”, identifies success stories from state and local officials whose efforts represent models for leaders across the country to take advantage of an infusion of federal dollars. Some of the more promising models include financial incentives to collect better data, leveraging geographic information system mapping and directly engaging with community members to identify broadband gaps. Below are specific examples of states and localities that have advanced innovative approaches.
Financially incentivizing communities. In Colorado, state Sen. Jeff Bridges sponsored a bill to help fund broadband expansion through an improved grant distribution process that prioritizes critically underserved communities, including low-income and hard-to-reach areas on tribal land. To ensure the funds reach the targeted communities, Sen. Bridges included a requirement for the broadband deployment board to develop a map identifying critically unserved areas in the state and reference it when reviewing applications. Grant applicants must provide granular mapping data to demonstrate the community’s needs and report on how the funds were used to improve speeds, rates and services. The bill was signed into law last July.
Leveraging technology tools. Across the country, policymakers are establishing centralized broadband offices that coordinate their efforts to address connectivity challenges. Florida state Sen. Loranne Ausley championed legislation that established the Florida Office of Broadband, through which the state is investing $1.5 million to fund GIS mapping to “identify where broadband capable networks exist, where service is available to users, and gaps in rural areas,” the Herald-Tribune reported. Additionally, the office is working with providers, local governments and community organizations to verify data and help policymakers better understand the nature of the connectivity gap.
Engaging residents on broadband gaps. In Santa Ana, California, Mayor Vincente Sarmiento is using $3.5 million of ARPA funds to conduct a citywide survey to better understand the gaps in service, which will help the city implement solutions that meet the needs of its most disadvantaged residents and businesses.
More examples of how state, local and tribal governments are using data-driven solutions to broadband and other challenges are available in Results for America’s ARP Data and Evidence Dashboard. Accessing all these new federal infrastructure funds will take time and resources, but a new partnership—led by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Results for America, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities–is offering to help underserved communities navigate the nearly 400 funding opportunities available through IIJA.
Increasing broadband access is a key component of achieving an equitable economic recovery. Leaders must not miss this moment to close the digital divide. With detailed information and strategic investments, policymakers can help ensure that all residents have equal access to the high-speed internet connections that are a basic need in today’s economy.
Debbie Cox Bultan is CEO of NewDEAL Leaders and NewDEAL Forum. Nichole Dunn is vice president of federal policy at Results for America.