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How Can State, Local Gov Help Ensure Sustainable Broadband?

According to industry experts, the answer varies based on each state or community's needs, and some examples include obtaining federal broadband funding, creating long-term plans and anticipating future challenges.

With more state and local government agencies prioritizing broadband in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say it is important to make sure the work they are doing is sustainable.

In fact, Merit — an independent nonprofit corporation governed by Michigan’s public universities — is hosting an upcoming webinar on this very topic, offering insights on state and local coordination efforts, working with state broadband offices and other related issues. The webinar — dubbed "State and Local Coordination Make Broadband Programs More Sustainable" — is free to interested parties and scheduled for Aug. 31.

Before it happens, though, Government Technology spoke with industry experts from Merit as well as Next Century Cities, which is partnering on the webinar, to better understand the issue and preview the event.


According to Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, who will present during the webinar, the phrase "sustainable broadband" refers to the long-term plan and execution of providing citizens with a stable and reliable Internet connection.

This concept, however, often tends to be mistaken or misunderstood.

For example, Ochillo said, “When I talk about sustainable broadband, people say, 'This is going to be amazing, we’re gonna do this two-year plan,' and my response is, 'OK, so what happens the following year?'”

Usually, she said, that question does not have an immediate answer. Rather, there’s more of a trend of being prescriptive and reactive to current broadband-related issues instead of having long-term plans for stable Internet connectivity. In the most basic sense, sustainable broadband means high-speed Internet that is built to keep users connected in perpetuity, not for limited windows.

This, of course, is not always an easy thing to achieve.


There is currently a historic amount of federal money coming down the pipeline for states to expand broadband, which has the potential to create challenges at all levels of government.

“For people that have been in the broadband space, this is kind of a chaotic period, just with that amount of unprecedented funding,” said Charlotte Bewersdorff, Merit’s vice president of community engagement.

One of the reasons why is because of the challenges it presents for state and local coordination. The federal money is going to the states, and in many places, cities must make their case for why they need the money and how much should go to their communities.

“Coordination, I think, is key, and it’s probably one of the biggest challenges,” Bewersdorff said. “Local community stakeholder engagement and coordination of infrastructure investment are hard because it involves a lot of people coordinating, communicating and engaging, and the funding is coming very quickly.”

As a result, further challenges include meeting deadlines to receive federal funding like BEAD money, for example, along with workforce shortages, supply chain issues, and coordinating both internally and with local governments, said Pierrette Renée Dagg, Merit’s Director of Technology Impact Research.

To combat this, Bewersdorff explained that state and local governments should focus on preparing for future challenges and educating communities about their connectivity options.

For example, she said, “the most important thing for communities to do right now is to become educated to understand their options, evaluate those options and understand what their particular model may be because there’s a variety of different technologies and ownership models that communities can choose.”

As for future challenges, states should start thinking about what happens after they receive federal funding.

“What’s going to happen for the next tranche of funding? Who’s going to get the community buy-in to be able to support things if we need to add something to the budget where you might have a federal resource dry up? Is there a plan for either a state or even local philanthropy or anything else to be a backstop? I think people don't always think that far through,” Ochillo said.

Another thing to consider is the ever-changing nature of the digital divide.

“The digital divide as it exists today will be very different in 10 or 15 years from now,” Ochillo said. “In 40 years from now, I imagine that everyone’s going to have to know a baseline of how to code, how to exist in a cashless system, to be able to create something or contribute to a digital ecosystem.”

If these changes come to fruition, she explained, it could greatly impact connectivity down the line, especially if states and local governments aren’t preparing for these changes.


For some states, educating citizens is key to creating sustainable broadband. For others, it involves a more boots-on-the-ground approach that involves working directly with residents.

For example, in Colorado, the state made it a point to use its website as a tool to provide residents with information about broadband-related proceedings, PowerPoint presentations, what’s happening with the FCC and who to contact for questions, according to Ochillo.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, government officials have modeled their broadband efforts after the Detroit Community Technology Project, which implements “community technologists to help design, build and facilitate a healthy integration of technology into people’s lives and communities.”

In the Bronx’s case, this involves training students to install infrastructure in Spanish, a concept Ochillo says many don’t think about.

“One of the things that we don’t think about is the fact that we’re acknowledging that language is a barrier, and we do very little to make sure that people who speak other languages are included in the solutions,” Ochillo said.

Another state that’s taking a community-first approach is Vermont.

To expand connectivity, towns within the state have joined together to form communications union districts (CUD) to build out a communication infrastructure.

The benefit of this, Ochillo said, is that these districts have worked together to build their own networks in an affordable way that considers geographic challenges presented by the state, such as weather and different terrains.

At the end of the day, Ochillo said, when it comes to state and local coordination, “if we really want this to be a transformational moment, we have to transform the way we think about our solutions. This has to be a moment we introduce new thinking and also have new standards for what we will accept.”

If not, she said, state and local governments will still be having the same conversations about broadband for years down the line.
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.