IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Building the Broadband Trifecta: Maps, Equity, Infrastructure

Getting all Americans connected is about more than running fiber to every house. Who needs it, who's paying for it and whether everyone has the skills to use it are all critical considerations as broadband networks expand.

SHUTTERSTOCK_RURAL_POWER_LINES.jpg
It’s been a banner couple of years for broadband. And maybe once all the new federal investment has been put to use, it will have been a banner decade. Luckily for us at Government Technology (and our parent company, e.Republic), there will be plenty of issues to consider, approaches to evaluate and best practices to share. At this point in early 2022, we focused on three aspects of our collective desire to get everyone connected: maps, equity and infrastructure. In fact, they’re all inextricably linked.

MAPS


A successful effort to blanket the country in Internet requires good data. As we hear so often from staff doing the work of government in the trenches, without accurate data, your chances for a successful program are greatly diminished if not wiped out entirely. This tedious work of data collection, standardization and validation takes longer than most outside the practice think it will. Just ask the Federal Communications Commission, which is somewhere in the process of updating old broadband coverage maps right now.

In the meantime, many communities have taken it upon themselves to gather more detailed connectivity data — either from local providers, residents directly or both. In Absent New FCC Broadband Maps, Local Govs Plot Coverage, we go deep with two cities and two states on their work to get a better handle on where current Internet options don’t adequately serve their residents. These involve varying levels of collaboration with community groups and with existing providers, whose data make up the FCC’s latest published maps.

One interesting takeaway offered by Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation and technology in Louisville, Ky., is that the data they gather can still be useful even if it’s not perfect. Officials have found that connectivity gaps “directly mirror our social divide gaps,” Simrall said, adding that “there’s value in being able to map that and demonstrate that.”

Simrall’s point leads to our next feature on digital equity.

DIGITAL EQUITY


Our cover story by Associate Editor Zack Quaintance, Digital Equity Takes Center Stage in U.S. Cities Post COVID, is a look at the work being done to supplement the physical connectivity in unconnected or underserved neighborhoods. It’s the practice that’s focused on equipping people with the digital devices and skills required in modern society. And while these efforts predated the pandemic, work and school at home en masse heightened its urgency to people in a position to do something about it.

As a result, many policymakers now see ensuring digital equity as part of their responsibility to their constituents. And funding is starting to materialize too — to engage new partners and invest in fostering relationships with existing grassroots groups that have strong ties to underserved populations. In many cases, these groups are already working to connect residents with other community resources.

And one partner of paramount importance to local officials working on connecting their constituents are those offices at the state level charged with administering the flood of funding flowing from Washington, D.C.

INFRASTRUCTURE


Every state might not yet have a broadband office, but those states that lack them are quickly working to establish them. Simply (if repetitively) stated, states need the infrastructure to build the broadband infrastructure. Our feature How Are State Broadband Offices Putting Federal Funds to Work? checks in with several state-level leaders who outline the enormity of their task over the next few years.

It’s a good problem to have, unprecedented resources, but these are offices that have operated on a shoestring and will need to scale up dramatically as well as take on vast new responsibilities. And that’s in the states that had broadband offices to begin with.

One interviewee made a hypothetical comparison to a state department of transportation — an organization accustomed to receiving big infrastructure investments from the federal government. For broadband though, there’s no historical equivalent to the coming influx: “There is no broadband department in any state that has a comparable experience taking large checks from the federal government and deploying that money to build a broadband network.”

Program officials across the nation are right now laying the groundwork for when the funds — that some believe could nearly wipe out the digital divide — hit their accounts. It’s a complex process we’ll be watching closely.
Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.