States set dates for closing their digital divides
When the US Congress eventually gets an infrastructure package to President Biden's desk, it will contain $65 billion for broadband, the country's most significant investment in Internet infrastructure to date. But several states aren't waiting around for that influx of cash to make multi-million-dollar investments toward closing their digital divides.
Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced $400 million for a new Connect Maryland initiative to achieve universal broadband access by 2025. The funding includes $300 million from the federal government's American Rescue Plan passed in March – previously allocated by the state legislature – and an additional $100 million announced by the governor.
As part of Connect Maryland, the state will create a Broadband Advisory Workgroup with "representatives from the counties and municipalities, as well as members of the General Assembly, to advise the state on the best ways to utilize this new investment in broadband infrastructure," according to a press release.
Further, Maryland will establish its own Emergency Broadband Benefit Subsidy Program, whereby those receiving a discount through the FCC's EBB program can use state subsidies to increase their reduction to up to $65/month (for up to 12 months). According to the FCC's most recent numbers, Maryland currently has 72,597 residents enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.
While data from BroadbandNow shows that Maryland ranks as the third-most connected state in the US, the digital divide still remains: 201,000 residents lack a wired connection of at least 25/3 Mbit/s, and another 130,000 lack access to a wired Internet connection at all. An additional 249,000 people in Maryland live in an area with just one Internet provider.
"The State of Maryland has set an ambitious goal of ensuring universal broadband to everyone in every single corner of the state by no later than 2025, and Connect Maryland is the game-changing initiative that is going to get us there," said Governor Hogan in his announcement of the program.
Also last week, Missouri Governor Michael Parson proposed a plan to use $400 million of the funding it received under the American Rescue Plan for broadband. In a press release, the governor's office says the plan was developed "through a multi-agency effort designed to address a diverse range of broadband connectivity challenges and is expected to impact hundreds of thousands of Missouri families."
The plan will need to be approved by the Missouri General Assembly in January for appropriation. Missouri currently ranks 32nd in the US for broadband access, according to BroadbandNow.
Other states announcing plans this year to put hundreds of millions in American Rescue Plan funds toward closing their broadband gaps include California and Virginia. California Governor Gavin Newsom celebrated the passing of a $6 billion plan to achieve universal access through a statewide fiber network, among other efforts; and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a $700 million commitment to end the digital divide in Virginia in the next three years.
In addition to earmarking funds from the American Rescue Plan, states and communities are seeking other types of federal funding to bolster their broadband efforts.
This week, the US Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said it received more than 230 applications for its Broadband Infrastructure Program, established to award grants for partnerships between states and fixed broadband providers. That amounts to $2.5 billion in requests for a grant program totaling $288 million.
In a press release, NTIA said it received applications from "49 states and U.S. territories."
"The intense demand for this program across the country demonstrates the widespread need for better broadband connectivity in unserved communities," said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo in a statement. "These investments are critical, but there is more to be done. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently passed by the Senate, will expand upon the groundwork being laid by this program to advance digital equity and get us one step closer to every American having access to high-speed, affordable, and reliable Internet."
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading
Here's where you can find episode links for 'The Divide,' Light Reading's podcast series featuring conversations with broadband providers and policymakers working to close the digital divide.
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