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It’s Imperative: Three States’ Efforts on Broadband for All

Technology leaders in California, Colorado and Minnesota convened at NASCIO to offer best practices on bridging connectivity and digital literacy gaps in their states.

NASCIO Midyear 2021 conference logo.
“The Broadband Imperative” was a well attended and aptly named session at this week’s NASCIO Midyear event, offering still more evidence of the skyrocketing importance of connectivity for all underlined in the past year. NASCIO survey data supports the claim too: its 2021 check-in with state chief information officers revealed a No. 4 ranking for broadband and wireless connectivity, up from No. 9 in 2020. “Broadband moved up the list significantly, with lots of priority and resources assigned to it,” said Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes in a session earlier in the week.

That same survey revealed that three out of four CIOs are involved in broadband efforts in their state, but the specifics of their involvement vary considerably. Colorado CIO Tony Neal-Graves, Minnesota CIO Tarek Tomes and Scott Adams, deputy director for broadband and digital literacy in California, joined Tom Curtin of the National Governors Association for a look at where broadband responsibility lies in each state, and where things stand today.

On the job for about a month, California’s Adams reports to state CIO Amy Tong, who leads the California Department of Technology. He “manages the ecosystem” of stakeholders involved in advancing connectivity in the state, which includes a 12-member council established in 2010 and chaired by Tong. The group, charged with promoting broadband in un- and underserved areas of the state, has representation from the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Education, the Office of Emergency Services, and other agencies. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on broadband last August, adding new urgency to connectivity efforts, directing state agencies to expand availability to 100 megabits per second for all Californians.

In Minnesota, broadband efforts are housed within the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Tomes explained, given the inextricable link between access to connectivity and the overall economic health of the state. “[Having] broadband in economic development is ideal because the connection between what happens in the economy and broadband access is so intertwined,” he said. Minnesota IT Services, led by Tomes, does run MNET, Minnesota’s Network for Enterprise Telecommunications, a statewide network that provides connectivity for state agencies, localities, schools and health-care institutions .

Tony Neal-Graves became state CIO last September following several years as executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office. In 2019, they moved towards formalizing the office’s relationships with state agencies. At that point, a public advisory board was established, which includes industry representatives, local officials and directors of state agencies. This kind of broad collaboration was lauded by all three panelists as a critical component to successful broadband efforts.

ACCESS TO CAPITAL


All three panelists made it clear that without funding, the best intentions to get everyone online cannot succeed. This month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called for $7 billion in broadband investment, $500 million of which Adams said will go toward assisting local governments in securing private financing for networks, and a one-time federal funding infusion will help incentivize Internet service providers (ISPs) to provide last-mile coverage in underserved areas. To best help determine where all that money will best be spent, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development is helping smaller organizations determine their financial need.

In Minnesota, Tomes described the “border-to-border grant program.” Established in 2013, Tomes said it has supported more than $120 million in broadband development in the state. He also pointed to Minnesota’s broadband task force as important to taking a big-picture look at what funding opportunities will work best for which part of the state.

Colorado has spent almost $106 million over the last five years on grants for middle- and last-mile efforts, Neal-Graves said. New legislation coming out this year will provide an additional $74 million and support not only expanding the infrastructure that gets fiber to homes, but also pivot the state toward solving associated problems, like digital literacy and access to tools like enough computers in a home to maximize what citizens can do with that high-speed connection.

GRANT EXPERTISE


Of course, it doesn’t matter how many grants are available if organizations or governments don’t know how to apply for them. Neal-Graves explained that while they’re starting to see impacts from broadband grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and FCC, Colorado realized early on that small providers either didn’t know how to navigate the complex process of applying for federal grants or they didn’t have the resources to do it. To help solve the problem, the state designated a staff member to be their go-to “federal expert,” providing much needed grant application support.

“My mantra was ‘Let’s get our unfair share of the money,’” Neal-Graves said, stressing that you don’t have a shot at winning funding that you never ask for.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT


When asked what was the No. 1 best thing his state has done to move the needle on the broadband-for-all directive, Neal-Graves said the most helpful thing he’s found has been getting buy-in from local communities.

“It’s a classic ‘it takes a village,’” he said. “It’s great the federal government is now providing more funds, but if you don’t have the engagement at the local level, it’s incredibly challenging to provide solutions to those communities.”

He explained that Colorado set up a plan to specifically target building that engagement. The state puts up 50 percent of the money and the locality has to match it. The state offers strategy development support, and the state can help the community manage the system, but ownership must reside at the community level. Developing “passion” for the project at the local level will then potentially drive down the cost for ISPs to consider deploying last-mile services, Neal-Graves said.

“There’s not a single state plan,” he said. “There’s a plan based on your community needs and whatever structure you have in place.”
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years 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. Follow @GovTechNoelle
Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.