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New Momentum Building for State Broadband Support Work

As Pew Charitable Trusts prepares to release a report this month about state broadband support efforts, many in the space say a new momentum is building, giving rise to more productive work.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new momentum has taken hold of state government work to support broadband infrastructure, access and usage. 

This momentum, experts say, is a direct result of an increased societal understanding of broadband as a utility, rather than as somewhat of a frivolous luxury. This was a consensus opinion Tuesday at an event hosted by Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., dubbed “How to Bridge the Broadband Gap: A Conversation with State Leaders.” The event featured a morning of discussions with Pew researchers, who are prepping a related report for later this month, and state government employees engaged with broadband work.

It was, perhaps, a very different set of conversations than the same group might have been having as recently as three years ago, said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative for Pew Charitable Trusts.

“More and more policymakers are seeing exactly why broadband matters,” de Wit said during opening remarks at the event. “This isn’t something that’s viewed as a nice-to-have anymore, this isn’t about Netflix and cat videos ... it’s about what you can do by having that Internet access.”

The spike in awareness, she continued, is closely related to state policymakers seeing that communities are missing out on employment opportunities, education opportunities, access to telehealth and the ability to retain their younger citizens.

This sea change in understanding, however, is a familiar one to those in the state broadband space. It’s one that many have spent years predicating and advocating for, citing it as a foundational piece of broadband work. With the growth in understanding established, the question next became a matter of what can be done at the state level to support and promote broadband accessibility, as well as adjacent goals such as affordability and digital literacy, which means helping citizens get the skills they need to use broadband in a productive manner.

This is what the forthcoming Pew report looks at directly, and what it finds is that there are five practices key to state government broadband support work: engaging stakeholders, establishing a policy framework, supporting planning efforts, providing related funding and evaluating the performance of efforts in a way that guides next steps.

To make this determination, de Wit and other researchers spent 18 months studying programs and initiatives across all 50 states, ultimately narrowing the report down to a look at 10 states as case studies. These states are California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

During the opening remarks, de Wit also stressed that there was no one approach, no magical solution to a problem as complex as this one, and that much became clear in later panels wherein the representatives from various states described what they and their partner agencies were doing. 

Almost all the involved states are providing funding to local and regional efforts, as well as to projects aimed at promoting the spread of broadband infrastructure. Many of the states also have robust broadband task forces that include cross-agency participation, staff from the executive branch and state lawmakers.

Within that, some more singular efforts emerged as well.

In Tennessee, for example, the state is focused on augmenting broadband infrastructure support with a digital literacy component, said Crystal Ivey, broadband director with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. This takes the form of small grants to local libraries to pay for digital skills instruction.

Ivey noted that at some libraries in Tennessee the classes have proven so popular that there is a waiting list. The classes are often basic, tackling topics such as how to set up email, how to use online bill pay and other skills that the digitally literate tend to take for granted.

“If you’re in a community that doesn’t have access to broadband, you may not know how to do these things,” Ivey said. “Increasing digital literacy in an area directly impacts the investment we’re making in our infrastructure.”

Another example of a relatively novel approach to the issue came from Wisconsin. Jaron McCallum, who is the statewide broadband director with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, described a digital inclusion tool there called the Internet Discount Finder. Developed as a joint project between McCallum’s department and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the tool is, as its name implies, a platform that helps low-income users find Internet discounts.

These and other examples at the event formed a patchwork of approaches being deployed by states across the country to not only extend broadband access but to ensure that once there, the utility benefits both individuals and communities. 

Pew expects to publish the report and full set of related findings by the end of February.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.