Connecting state and local government leaders
Members of the NewDEAL Forum launched the task force this week. It’ll focus on issues like expanding high-speed internet access in rural areas and improving affordability.
With billions of dollars in new federal funding now available for broadband-related programs and talk of further investments under an infrastructure package that the Biden administration is pressing for, it’s a potentially pivotal moment for knocking down barriers that millions of American households face getting online with high-speed internet connections.
Against this backdrop, a group of progressive state and local officials launched a new task force this week that will focus on closing the “digital divide.” The NewDEAL Forum says its Broadband Task Force will seek to identify obstacles limiting access to high-speed internet, develop state and local solutions to those challenges and work on advocacy and collaborative efforts at the federal level.
“If we’re really going to close the gap,” said Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is one of the group’s chairs, “we have to tackle the barriers of access, of adoption and of affordability,”
Another of the group’s co-chairs, Florida state Sen. Loranne Ausley, noted that the task force will focus on broadband shortfalls in both urban and rural communities. The district she represents around Tallahassee spans 11 counties, and she said many of the people who lack broadband access in the region are in rural areas, where internet providers don’t offer service.
Ausley said she sees the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit—a new federal initiative that provides subsidies to help low-income households pay for internet service and the cost of devices to get online—as a great way to start addressing affordability issues. But she added that it’s of limited use in rural communities she represents because broadband just isn’t available.
“Solutions, they look very different for urban communities and rural communities,” Ausley said.
The group BroadbandNow estimates that at least 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband. The coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on the issue as it forced many people to work remotely, and as students had to attend classes online.
In announcing the broadband group, NewDEAL Forum said that equity concerns would be a priority and pointed to a recent study that found one in three Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native students do not have high-speed home internet access.
On top of the $3 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, there’s also about $7 billion available through a new federal program to support schools and libraries expanding internet access. And spending on broadband infrastructure is one of the ways states and localities are allowed to use money from a $350 billion federal aid fund created earlier this year.
“Investment in internet infrastructure in Michigan is connected to the future well-being of our state,” Gilchrist said. He added that one-time infusions, like the federal aid the state will receive, are particularly well suited for spending on projects like broadband infrastructure.
Gilchrist said that while there are promising solutions to solving broadband access and affordability problems, political will has been lacking at times and he acknowledged that entrenched internet providers can sometimes make innovation difficult.
Even so, the task force plans to look for ways to work with internet companies to achieve its goals. “We can expand access … by working alongside providers, incumbent providers and new potential providers,” the lieutenant governor added.
But the affordability piece is also key, Gilchrist said. He described it as fully intertwined with access. “If you can’t afford it, you cannot access it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if your house is wired for fiber in the home and you can’t afford to subscribe to it.”
Both Gilchrist and Ausley hail from states with laws on the books that make it hard for public entities to get directly involved in establishing or operating broadband networks.
Gilchrist highlighted innovative models that have nevertheless emerged in his state. For instance, Northern Michigan University is using its educational broadband spectrum to provide access across a swath of the state’s Upper Peninsula.
“We have some internet service providers that are serving markets that have like 70 people, that have significant geographic challenges to delivery,” he said.
Determining how these sorts of efforts fit into models for providing widespread access to high-speed broadband, and what sorts of regulations and policies are needed to provide support, are the types of questions that the task force will be exploring.
Just knowing where broadband service is and is not available has been a long-standing challenge, and the Federal Communications Commission has called on states and localities and others to provide input that will help improve the accuracy of broadband service maps.
In Florida, Ausley supported a bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law earlier this month that will provide $1.5 million for broadband mapping in her state. She flagged it is an example of why cooperation with the federal government can be important.
There’s been pushback in her state on the mapping issue, she explained, with critics saying that getting the maps right is a federal responsibility. But Ausley said that acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s office backed her up, by making clear that state and local support with the maps is needed.
“Having those doors open and those relationships are really important as we try to move these complex policy issues forward,” Ausley added. The hope is that the new task force will help to foster these types of exchanges between the group’s members and federal officials.
The task force expects to meet monthly. The co-chairs, who also include San Jose, California Mayor Sam Liccardo, plan to release guidance for state and local leaders based on the group's discussions and other related work.
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.