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Research Suggests State Broadband Policies Make a Difference

A new article in Telecommunications Policy presents evidence that local areas generally fare better when states award broadband money to providers and allow municipalities to get into the broadband business.

Broadband connection
A new study has found that counties in states with broadband funding programs and no municipal broadband restrictions tend to have more broadband availability than their counterparts. 

The study, authored by Brian Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo, was published in the journal Telecommunications Policy. The article, according to its literature review, is the first in more than a decade to empirically measure the impacts of state-level broadband policies. 

With factors like education, poverty and population density controlled, the analysis shows that counties have better broadband and fiber availability, on average, when states have broadband funding programs and no municipal broadband restrictions. The study notes that while the potential positive effects of these relationships are small, they are statistically significant. 

Moreover, if a state has both broadband funds and municipal broadband as a legal option, the potential positive effect for counties could be greater than if a state only has broadband funds or municipal broadband as a legal option. 

"From a practical standpoint," the study reads, "the results argue for prompt action: states that remove municipal broadband restrictions may see their overall availability increase by 3 percentage points, and those that offer their own funding program should see increases of 1–2 percentage points."

Interestingly, the study shows limited evidence that counties benefit from state-level broadband offices. However, the researchers point out that these offices are a relatively new development in many states (nationwide, the number of such offices increased from eight in 2014 to 25 in 2018), so it may take time for any positive associations to take hold. 

One limitation of the study is that it uses National Broadband Map and Federal Communications Commission data to measure broadband availability in counties. Such data has been heavily criticized for overstating broadband availability in census blocks, meaning that the study’s analysis could be potentially biased in one direction or another for a given county. 

The authors conclude that states appear to have justification for increasingly establishing broadband offices and broadband funding programs as well as removing restrictions on what types of entities (such as municipalities or electric cooperatives) can provide broadband service. The study also suggests that more research is needed to analyze broadband adoption rates in counties and to evaluate the impacts of state-level efforts such as broadband mapping initiatives and rights-of-way legislation. 

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.