Pew Initiative to Study Broadband Access Hurdles

The Pew Charitable Trusts has launched its new Broadband Research Initiative to understand why some 24 million Americans still lack broadband access.

by / February 22, 2019
The Pew Charitable Trusts has launched its new Broadband Research Initiative to understand why some 24 million Americans still lack broadband access. Shutterstock

Researchers are stepping up efforts to learn more about why so many communities across the country still lack access to broadband Internet service.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has launched its new Broadband Research Initiative to understand why some 24 million Americans — most of those living in rural communities — still lack what is largely now considered a basic utility.

“About 30 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband, compared to about 2 percent of urban Americans,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew’s Broadband Research Initiative, in an interview with Government Technology earlier this month.

“So while there is that big gap, I don’t think that this is a policy issue that’s split very neatly along urban and rural lines,” she continued. “There’s no one-size-fits-all to broadband connectivity and solving that gap. Every community is different and has different characteristics and different needs. And subsequently, will require different solutions for closing those gaps.”

The research aims to explore some of the solutions to closing the broadband gap, as well as how to get there.

“The bulk of our research is really looking at how state governments are addressing these gaps in connectivity,” said de Wit, and admitted the team is still pretty early in the research.

One of the areas Pew will explore closely is how states are funding and financing broadband programs, noting that many are looking to sources that might have gone overlooked in the past.

Some of those sources could be in areas like community development block grants or even transportation funding.

“Really, this is about broadband kind of moving out of the telecommunications silo, and tying it to other policy areas,” she added. “So, broadband is a cornerstone technology, if you’re talking about transportation, tele-health, precision agriculture, education.”

The issue of broadband access has remained a central concern among a number of state leaders. In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia championed the idea of “universal broadband access.”

“When a community doesn’t have reliable Internet access, it can’t attract businesses, support its home-grown entrepreneurs, keep its students up to date, or use telehealth to keep people healthy,” said the governor during his address.

“This is probably the No. 1 issue I hear from Virginians as I travel around the state, and the No. 1 issue I hear from legislators — both Republicans and Democrats,” he added.

In his Jan. 10 address, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis also cited the need for commitments to expand the production and availability of green renewable energy and broadband access, calling it "critical infrastructure."

A lot of the efforts by the Pew initiative will hone closely to what’s happening at the state level, said de Wit, if only because this level of government seems best positioned for trickling changes down to the county and local level.

“We really are looking at state policy in this,” said de Wit. “And state policy is very important to local government. So that is one thing that we are focusing on, sort of the role that state policy plays in this space."

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.