The $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act marked the most significant infusion of federal resources for public works projects in decades for states and local communities. The year-old law included $65 billion to expand broadband services to communities that have little or no high-speed internet access, which has become key for economic growth and job creation. Broadband’s importance was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it caused for the economy and communities.
All states are preparing plans that will prioritize the broadband projects supported through new federal funds. These funds will unlock economic and educational opportunities for millions of people in underserved rural and urban communities. Maximizing these funds will require states to build a strong structure of technical leadership, engage outside stakeholders and experts, and leverage broadband lessons from the last decade.
While a sustained investment in technology is required to successfully deploy broadband, states will need to look beyond laying fiber and hiring internet service providers. The new federal assistance may seem narrowly designed, yet states actually have significant latitude in deciding how to use it. Some of the planning funds can help states better understand why people and communities remain unconnected, while other funds can be used to deliver the secure and affordable digital systems these areas need.
SUMMARY OF OPPORTUNITIES
This memo lays out actions states can take in the first 200 days of 2023 to start bringing broadband to more communities and make sure it’s done effectively.
Build technical teams to make effective broadband investments
The first step is for states to put together robust technical teams — a necessity in our modern, digital world. These teams must be able to roll out broadband investments that work over the long term. Governors can build expertise within their administrations and rely on national and local expertise to supplement their teams.
Use effective data and analysis to drive broadband decisions
States can prioritize gathering data that will let them produce a reliable statewide broadband map showing access gaps. These will be critical for understanding residents’ broadband needs. Officials must understand how people interact with technology and services, identify problems and address them. This can help states decide how to best distribute funds and workers for broadband projects. Broadband mapping data is also essential for determining if state broadband goals have been met.
Prioritize ensuring that all individuals and communities get connected
States need to ensure that their digital services and products are inclusive and accessible to all. Consider access, digital literacy and meaningful use of digital technologies for different groups, particularly from underrepresented communities. States can also utilize funds such as the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program to boost digital equity efforts.
The passage of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 marked the most significant infusion of federal public works money for state and local governments in generations. The measure provides $65 billion to expand broadband to communities with little or no high-speed internet access, which is necessary for economic growth and job creation. Broadband’s importance was only underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic given the sudden shift to online services for government, businesses, schools, and healthcare providers.
As federal and state governments map broadband access nationally, figures on the exact number of people living in areas that lack internet access vary significantly. Current estimates span from 14.5 to 42 million people, with all sources recognizing that a significant number of Americans lack what is largely considered today a basic utility. This doesn’t include the number of people who live in places with broadband coverage with slower speeds or higher costs.
One of the primary sources of funds for states is the $42 billion contained in the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Each state will receive an initial allocation of $100 million with additional funding provided based on the number of unserved and underserved communities. In order to receive funding, each state must submit a five-year plan that identifies locations that should be prioritized for support; outlines how to serve unconnected locations; and assesses how long it would take to build out universal broadband. States receive the first 20% when their initial proposal is approved and the other 80% when they submit their Final Proposal. An overview of funding opportunities and a timeline are here.
In 2023, states will need technical telecommunications and community development expertise to develop their broadband plans. States may also need to collect their own data relative to unserved and underserved communities to ensure they are targeting their investments effectively.
States focused on best practices will look beyond laying fiber and hiring internet service providers to successfully deploy broadband. A crucial step will be understanding the barriers to connecting communities, such as affordability for individuals, lack of access to devices and digital literacy.
States can take effective action early to deliver implementation goals that will benefit residents over the next decade and beyond. States can create technically proficient leadership and equip them with financial, human and institutional resources to connect every resident with usable and affordable broadband. They can supplement these internal teams by engaging key stakeholders and building strong partnerships with outside stakeholders and experts.
FEDERAL DOLLARS PRESENT A TIMELY OPPORTUNITY FOR SUCCESS OR FAILURE
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided the largest federal investment in state broadband access to date, with $65 billion for state broadband investment projects:
As of the end of 2022, all 50 states as well as DC and Puerto Rico received their BEAD 5 Year Planning Funds and their Digital Equity Funds.
The infrastructure measure is not the only federal resource for states to jumpstart their broadband programs. In response to COVID-19, the federal government provided billions of pandemic relief dollars for infrastructure investment, including broadband access.
States are already using COVID-19 relief funds to improve broadband access. More than half of states have made improvements to high-speed connectivity or have created new broadband programs. Here are some notable trends in broadband spending by states:
States working with private companies should consult with procurement experts to be sure key contract provisions are being followed, including minimum speed guarantees, benchmarks for connecting communities and getting reimbursements when justified.
KEY TECHNOLOGY OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE FIRST 200 DAYS OF 2023
Below are meaningful steps that state leaders can take at the beginning of 2023 to start expanding broadband access for their residents. In the first 200 days:
BUILD TECHNICAL TEAMS TO MAKE EFFECTIVE BROADBAND INVESTMENTS
From telework to telehealth to telelearning, the COVID-19 pandemic required widespread shifts to digital service delivery at a pace and scale never seen before. This unprecedented reliance on technology revealed the huge benefits of living and working in communities that are connected to the internet. It also revealed the disabling reality of not being connected, especially in low-income rural and urban areas. Some connectivity gaps are due to a complete lack of access to a high-speed internet connection. Others are caused by the absence of devices or affordable service plans.
States will be hamstrung without the right technical teams to lead planning and implementation, even with an influx of federal dollars to tackle these problems. During the first 200 days of 2023, states can build these teams. This will likely require hiring for internal expertise and relying on outside experts where hiring does not make sense.
Appoint a state broadband director with technical and management expertise
As of August 2022, all 50 states have active broadband programs. Their sizes and structures vary considerably, with some offices housed centrally in a state broadband office and others distributed across agencies. Regardless of the state’s approach, the broadband director role is critical to effectively improving a state’s connectivity. They are responsible for developing the vision, setting strategy and building strong relationships with key stakeholders. A successful director will have appropriate operational and technical skills, the power to make decisions and support from the state executive team.
Critical skills for a broadband director include:
Even a broadband director with the right skills and experience can only be successful if they have the authority they need and direct support from the governor’s office. To ensure that their broadband directors can be successful, states could:
Identify and use shared resources from the nonprofit community
Many states struggle to staff broadband offices, so philanthropies and nonprofit organizations have helped provide resources. States could reach out to the following organizations to help build capacity for policy, research, mapping and planning.
Some key resources include:
Use existing teams and resources from different state agencies
When households are connected to internet services, governments can serve them better and use staff resources more efficiently. State agencies like social services, housing authorities and economic development have a stake in successful broadband delivery. The broadband director can collaborate with these agencies to assess existing technical resources and address staffing gaps. To the extent resources like geographic information systems (GIS) mapping (or systems that combine location data with descriptive information like income levels or broadband accessibility), digital services and analytics teams exist in other agencies, states can leverage them to support broadband planning and delivery until they can build the staffing they need.
USE EFFECTIVE DATA AND ANALYSIS TO DRIVE BROADBAND DECISIONS
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that states need to collect and analyze data to understand what is happening in their communities and respond to people’s needs. States need real-time information to make informed decisions about policy, resource allocation and how processes are working.
It is impossible to make investment decisions about broadband without data. Leaders must understand:
This kind of data will let states maximize their ability to get federal funds, implement broadband access effectively and evaluate the success of their work with outside partners. Data helps a state hold contractors and other third-party partners accountable. Most states procure data from companies to build broadband coverage maps. The National Broadband Resource Hub can help states vet companies and proposals.
Many states lack the technical expertise and tools they need to understand their data and use it to make decisions. The following are early actions states can take to build data capacity.
Hire a broadband data director with technical expertise
Building the ability to use broadband data effectively is a substantial undertaking that includes:
A state’s broadband office requires strong, modern data leadership. A data director can ensure that internal and external stakeholders have the information they need to make decisions and implement them effectively by:
Historically, overseeing government data systems might have been considered a job for middle management. But in an age when detailed information drives nearly every government interaction, data leaders have become critical members of state and agency leadership teams. The responsibilities of a data leader have expanded not just to data management using new technologies like cloud computing, but also data governance — the stewardship and protection of end-user data.
The broadband data director should have hands-on experience delivering data tools and software products and a track record of building multifaceted teams. The data leader will likely need a small team of analysts and engineers to support data collection, analysis and development of tools necessary for data use.
If a state already has a chief data officer, they can work directly with the broadband director instead of hiring another person. This person would need to be well resourced to support broadband delivery efforts effectively.
Collect and analyze geographic broadband data for insight on who is not connected, where and why
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is releasing data that will drive the amount of money states receive to improve broadband access. The primary window states have to submit challenges to the FCC location-level map closed on January 13th and NTIA expects to announce BEAD Program allocations by June 30, 2023.
The FCC’s methodology can overstate how well communities are connected. For example, it considers a census block — the smallest area for which the Census Bureau gathers data — served if at least one household or business has broadband access. Because census blocks can range from a single city block to hundreds of square miles, thousands of households may find themselves excluded from investments. This has led to pockets of served and unserved communities scattered across the nation. These will be expensive to upgrade because providers must now move across service areas to upgrade small portions of communities.
Without local mapping capabilities, many households will be left out of new state-facilitated service offerings and upgrades due to lack of information on where resources need to be directed. States that are leading on broadband, gather and use data to understand barriers to connectivity, such as:
Gathering data to understand connectivity barriers can help states build a data-informed vision for the success of their broadband efforts. It can also be used when states are making decisions about partnership agreements and contracts with vendors.
Many states have already begun prioritizing broadband coverage mapping. For instance, in 2018 Georgia worked with service providers and county officials to verify access in individual households in three counties. Unlike the FCC’s approach, Georgia considers a census block unserved if at least 20% of households do not have access. Georgia’s pilot program completed its mapping effort in June 2020 and found that the FCC had misidentified half of Georgia’s locations as being served by broadband providers, when they actually lacked broadband access. Maine also takes data on the speed and reliability of broadband connections into account to create their data maps instead of relying on the speed-testing data that internet service providers report. These approaches are critical to accurately mapping broadband data.
PRIORITIZE ENSURING THAT INDIVIDUALS AND COMMUNITIES GET CONNECTED
Last year’s federal infrastructure bill provided $2.75 billion that was spread across three programs for digital equity project planning and implementation. Digital equity means investing in the broadband infrastructure necessary to ensure all individuals and communities — regardless of socioeconomic background — have full access to the internet and can participate fully in American society and the economy. As a part of this, states must also improve outreach to tribes and consider supporting tribal-specific strategies for outreach and digital equity.
Planning grant applications for Digital Equity Act funds — a grant program established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to promote digital skills education to low-income populations and improve the online accessibility of social services — were due in July 2022, and project implementation grants will launch in 2024. While states are not required to take advantage of Digital Equity Act funds, it is hard to see how states can meet their broadband connectivity goals without using these funds to reach unserved and underserved populations.
Conduct discovery sprints to quickly understand resident challenges and test solutions
Discovery sprints are a tool leveraged frequently in modern software development. They let technical teams developing a product work directly with the product end users to understand what their problems are and get feedback for proposed solutions or prototypes. Involving users early in the process can help a state solve the most important problems and ensure that solutions will actually work for the people who need it.
To better understand what problems they must address to help unserved and underserved communities, states must think about:
Hire a digital equity director
Laying fiber and ensuring coverage by internet service providers can be completed in a few years. Making sure a state’s residents are connected will take decades or more. A state’s digital equity director can play a key role in developing relationships with communities and businesses reliant on strong broadband access, understanding community needs and developing partnerships and projects to shrink the digital divide. Ideally they are a partner to the state’s broadband director. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) also recommends that states consider establishing a Digital Equity Office to coordinate digital equity efforts across the state.
A successful digital equity director will have expertise in technology and working with underrepresented communities. They also have a track record building and delivering programs to support underrepresented communities. These include people of color, people with disabilities, low-income households, retirees and rural residents. They should also be centered on users’ needs and prioritize community engagement.
To be effective, the digital equity director should have the authority and resources to:
Hold listening sessions in communities to build trust and increase visibility
States that have begun listening sessions are making progress. For instance, Maine’s Connect Maine Authority holds stakeholder engagement meetings and runs workshops to gain feedback on grants and align programs with user needs and state priorities. The North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity has created a statewide survey assessing broadband availability. It also has an outreach guide to encourage communities with limited broadband access to take the survey.
To reach all residents effectively, it’s critical to identify the needs and challenges they face. State leaders could consider partnering with community organizations that are trusted in the communities they serve. States can hold listening sessions to:
This kind of engagement with communities can help states identify the right problems and build plans and systems that can solve them. Ultimately, state leaders can use the information from listening sessions to inform planning, drive prioritization and test ideas.
BEYOND THE FIRST 200 DAYS
The first 200 days of a new or returning administration is a critical time to build the momentum needed to deliver on policy priorities. But it is the daily work that goes on for months and years that will determine whether the government serves its constituents well. In the case of broadband infrastructure development, there are several areas for long-term focus.
USE DATA TO TRACK PROGRESS
Broadband expansion requires continual studies of the access communities have to it. To keep track of places that need help, access studies let states measure how progress is going. States that conduct regular broadband access studies will learn what is working and can adjust their plans accordingly. As organizations and states receive more feedback on how to measure broadband access, states should update their analysis to reflect this feedback.
CONNECT WITH COLLEGES, UNIVERSITIES AND TECHNICAL SCHOOLS
Broadband team members should ideally have technical expertise creating and working with vast quantities of data, and should have expertise working with broadband technology. While it can be difficult to identify the proper talent necessary to equip these broadband teams, some states have made progress.
To open the door to new and diverse talent pipelines, states can build mutually beneficial relationships with institutions that train technology specialists. This can help states engage with new graduates by doing things like attending career fairs and offering student loan forgiveness, based on years of service, if they accept state job offers.
One important resource for states is the Public Interest Tech University Network (PIT-UN). PIT-UN has brought together nearly 50 colleges across the country to build the field of public interest technology and to help support young technologists interested in public service.
Another example is Louisiana’s broadband office, which is working to address state broadband workforce needs. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the state has encouraged internet service providers applying to its Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities (GUMBO) grant program to work with community colleges to fill broadband infrastructure job vacancies and develop broadband-specific training programs. The office is also hosting regional workforce summits to support cooperation between industry and other programs.