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COVID-19 Lessons May Boost State Gov Digital Equity Work

Work to bridge the digital divide has gained momentum in recent years in state and local government, and it may be boosted further by the novel coronavirus reinforcing the importance of having the Internet at home.

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Editor’s note: This is a part two of a two part series looking at how the coronavirus crisis stands to reinvigorate broadband and digital equity work in government. Click here to read part one.

In January and February, reports from overseas began to suggest that the United States should prepare for the onset of the novel coronavirus. Almost simultaneously, Pew Charitable Trusts released a report noting that state government work to boost broadband accessibility and availability had, in recent years, gained momentum.

It was, of course, difficult at the time to draw a link between the two, but that has since changed. 

See, the report was the result of 18 months of research on all 50 states, specifically honing in on 10 state case studies. Obviously, no one involved with the report knew that coming just weeks after its release would be the most tangible lesson the world has ever had on the importance of broadband. Yet, the pandemic confined millions to their homes soon after, inspiring scores of stakeholders to take a new interest in what’s being done to bridge digital divides, to make sure all students have access at home to Internet and computers; to make sure seniors know how to benefit from telehealth; and to ensure all residential areas have optimal broadband connections.

All of this is a means of pointing out that as digital equity work becomes a new priority for decision-makers in both the public and private sectors, several state governments have already put quite a bit of work into bridging the digital divide, primarily by working to foster better broadband access.

Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Research Initiative, was heavily involved with the report, and during a recent conversation with Government Technology, she pointed to an overarching lesson it made clear.

What researchers have found is that there’s no magic bullet — no incentive, regulation, law or partnership — that by itself can fix the digital divide. There are, of course, actions that can be taken at all levels of government to support the work. That said, a vital lesson made clear by the 10 case studies is that the most effective approach is more like magic buckshot than a magic bullet, meaning that it takes several different actions working in service of the same goal.

With that in mind, there are two states that rank as perhaps the best example of what government can accomplish, and they are Maine and North Carolina.

A ‘Germination Seed’ for Broadband in Maine

First and perhaps foremost, Maine and North Carolina are both part of an increasing number of states that have created dedicated offices and full-time staff positions to work on broadband availability and accessibility, as well as other issues of digital inclusion.

And while their work tends to deviate in its execution from there, the general approach that each takes is familiar — the goal is to find solutions to the broadband challenge that are specific for each individual community in the state.

Indeed, in separate conversations with state broadband officials in both states, each used the old saying, “If you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen one county,” meaning that what works in one part of the state will almost certainly not work in the exact same way in another.

Maine, as the first example, has had a program called ConnectME that was founded in 2006, powered primarily by a small fee related to landlines and some broadband connections. The initiative has a budget of roughly $1 million, an oversight board, and a small staff, lead by ConnectME Executive Director Peggy Schafer.

One of the most impactful approaches that ConnectME takes involves fostering community engagement among local stakeholders. Essentially, that means getting trusted and influential members of local communities to understand how broadband availability and accessibility can improve their lives. Planting this “germination seed,” as Schafer described it, is often an easy first step.

“When you have no Internet or you have really bad Internet,” Schafer said, “it’s not really that hard to get the community engaged with how to improve it.”

One lesson that Schafer and others have learned in Maine is that this buy-in is not entirely about business or economics, and that it also requires getting communities to understand how Internet can help seniors see their doctors, encourage young adults to stay in their communities, and help children do their homework — all of which are lessons made more acute by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s all well and good, but where Schafer often sees the biggest challenge is when there’s a financial need. A community will reach a consensus that broadband is vital, and often they’ll create specific plans for how to build out infrastructure, perhaps centered around a public-private partnership specific to their region. They still need the money to make it reality, either via government grants or the investment of a would-be private partner.

Schafer was heartened to see money allocated to broadband support efforts in some of the recent federal government stimulus efforts, although she said she’s hopeful it will be a start to more investments, which make all the difference.

“When you pull pots of money together, you can get significant projects done,” she said.

And she’s certainly heard from more people at all levels of governments wanting to get digital inclusion projects done, adding that “this emergency stripped the cover off of this issue.”

The North Carolina Broadband Playbook

North Carolina has taken a similar granular approach to the issue of state broadband as Maine, doing so through its Broadband Infrastructure Office. Jeff Sural is the director of that initiative, a role he has occupied since early 2015.

In the government broadband and digital inclusion space, many experts and advocates point to North Carolina as a state government success story, noting that it takes a largely singular approach to the work by having a team of people on the ground throughout the state. Sural describes this group — officially named the Technical Assistance Team — as the state’s geek squad. Really, the group sounds like a broadband mission impossible squad, with each member having a different expertise, ranging from Wi-Fi technicalities to economic development concerns.

Over the years, the team has repeatedly found that every county is unique. Even so, they’ve identified a pattern of shared challenges and concerns, which has led to the creation of Broadband Community Playbook, the first suggestion of which is for the area to form its own Broadband Community Planning Taskforce, made up of local folks from all different areas of communities — school districts, private industry, economic development and more.

The driving idea is that the communities will do the work of creating a means of broadband availability that works for them, with the state team serving as something like technical advisers. To this end, their playbook also offers up checklists, RFPs and example ordinances related to placing wireless equipment on public assets like water towers.

“There are other instructional playbooks out there,” Sural said, “but this one we tried to load up with tools and checklists and things like that to make it more tangible so these folks can do the work themselves.”

Sural’s office is also engaged with building tests and surveys aimed at giving the state a comprehensive and uniform dataset related to broadband, something that has long proven elusive throughout the United States, with frequent criticisms over the FCC’s broadband mapping. 

The end result of all the work is that there are rural areas of North Carolina where 90 percent of households are connected to high-speed fiber Internet, which is a rate higher than that of many major cities. Sural attributed this to the years of work the state has invested, the skillsets of the members on his team, the patience of small Internet service providers to wait for return on investment, and the willingness of local entities like electric co-ops to help with infrastructure.

While his counterparts are fielding waves of calls from parties surprised at the extent of the digital divide, Sural said that in his state the importance of the work has long been recognized. There’s just a renewed push to nationwide to get the work done.

“I’ve been hearing from my colleagues around the country,” Sural said, “and right now everyone is just working overtime to try and come up with ways to solve this.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.