As broadband took center stage as one of the main characters in the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, several states across the US made moves to increase access to high-speed Internet through funding allocation, legislation and the creation of broadband offices.
Pew Charitable Trusts breaks down that progress in a recent report. Here are some of the highlights:
Funding: According to Pew, 12 state legislatures in 2020 allocated between $1.5 million and $51 million to existing broadband funds or other state entities responsible for financing broadband.
Further, six states (Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon and Pennsylvania) established new broadband funds, bringing the number of state broadband funds in the US to 37.
State broadband offices: Several states also created new broadband entities to oversee stakeholder engagement, data management, planning and grant administration. Florida, Kansas and Louisiana established broadband offices; while Colorado, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wisconsin created broadband task forces. Additionally, the governors of Colorado, Kansas and Wisconsin expanded their existing broadband programs through executive orders.
Local and municipal broadband: Several states also passed laws to enable electric co-ops and municipalities to participate in providing broadband. That includes Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina and West Virginia, which passed legislation authorizing electric or telephone cooperatives to use or lease their utility equipment to provide last-mile service.
New Hampshire and Vermont also passed bills in 2020 "that allow municipalities to form communication union districts—two or more towns that join to build broadband infrastructure—and provide broadband services to residents," according to Pew.
"States have recognized that getting unserved communities online requires lowering barriers to entry—such as the availability of middle mile infrastructure, particularly for nontraditional providers. Adding tools to the toolbox creates more opportunities to bring connections to communities that might otherwise not have access to reliable, high-speed broadband," writes Pew.
Cable is 'terrified'
Not everyone is on board with adding such "tools to the toolbox," with Republicans on Capitol Hill arguing in recent hearings on rural broadband that these municipal programs tend to fail and thus private providers should be incentivized through forthcoming federal legislation to build out America's remaining broadband infrastructure.
However, Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says that the only way to get to universal access is with a public broadband model, and that these concerns around municipal broadband reflect cable companies' priorities and not the needs of the nation.
"The obsession with the handful of failures that exist out there really just ignores the rapid success... I mean, the most successful fiber network in the world is a city: Chattanooga," says Falcon, adding that we should "absolutely" include municipalities in broadband funding measures as the government is going to be "most poised" to provide low-income access.
"I think the emphasis is really driven by cable... I'll say very clearly why we have cable telling members of Congress, 'oh yeah, municipal fiber is a bad idea,' is they're terrified of the idea of entities who can take the 30-to-40 year long-term view of 21st century access and deliver multi-gigabit Internet when they just don't want to do that," says Falcon.
"They don't want to have to spend the money necessary to keep up with that," he says. "The longer they can pull that off in more places, then the less money they have to spend on their own networks.
"I think that's an unfortunate motivation, but that is what's driving that debate."
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading