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Report Outlines Broadband Fixes for State, Local Governments

A new report from the NewDEAL Forum shows different ways that states and local areas can address the digital divide. The report examines approaches from Texas, California, Colorado and several other states.

A metal plate on the side of a road with the word “broadband” stamped on it.
How should states and local areas use federal dollars to connect the digital have-nots? A recent report aims to help governments that are looking for different options to address Internet access gaps in their communities.

In addition to broadband access, the report, produced by the NewDEAL Forum’s Broadband Task Force, examines a number of Internet-related subjects like coverage mapping, affordability, telehealth and digital skills.

The overall goal is to give states and local areas a plethora of ideas that they might draw from as they develop new programs funded by recent federal legislation. The report shares the experience of state and local policymakers as well as knowledge from the private sector.

Loranne Ausley, a Florida senator and co-chair of the aforementioned task force, said the report should be seen as a boon by broadband stakeholders, as closing the digital divide can involve many different potential factors depending on local contexts.

“As one of those policymakers trying to deliver on this issue over the last couple of years, I would have loved to have something like this at my fingertips,” she said. “I spent a lot of time going down rabbit holes … there was nothing like this at the time when I started on this path.”

Local areas, particularly when they’re rural, don’t always have the resources to identify a path forward when it comes to connectivity and digital inclusion. The report showcases the importance of having a state office that can support smaller community efforts with technical assistance, and underlines how critical it is to understand the different technologies that can help get households connected.

“There’s no one technology,” Ausley said. “There’s no one provider. In some communities, it’s probably going to be multiple technologies that can get you to the point to say everyone has coverage.”

As challenging as it is for rural communities to tackle the issue of high-speed Internet access, that doesn’t mean cities don’t have major hurdles to clear. Clay Garner, chief innovation officer and senior tech adviser to the mayor in San Jose, Calif., said both rural and urban areas have “serious inequity” in regards to broadband, and he would like to see cities be “front and center when it comes to national-level investments.”

“The inequity is glaring,” Garner said. “In some of the leading economies in the United States, to have people not have access to the Internet is absurd.”

San Jose has had to get creative in its attempts to solve the affordability issue in some of its neighborhoods. In a novel approach outlined by the report, San Jose has formed a partnership with company Helium to pay the Internet bills of low-income families by mining cryptocurrency and converting that to gift cards.

“Our goal is to cover 1,300 households for a year,” Garner said.

In addition to the San Jose case study, the report looks at examples like Colorado, where a bill requires broadband grant applicants “to provide more granular mapping data to demonstrate the community needs”; Oakland, Calif., which has managed to bring free Wi-Fi to multiple low-income apartment buildings; and Brownsville, Texas, an “economically depressed” locality that has nonetheless kicked off a plan to build middle-mile fiber throughout the city by bringing together stakeholders, taking advantage of federal funds and engaging in broadband mapping.

Ausley said she admires places like Brownsville that take it on themselves to solve the broadband problem.

“Those are the types of stories that are so inspiring,” she said.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.