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Uncertain Times Fueling a Shift in State Broadband Efforts

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has inspired the birth of new state broadband programs, but it has also raised questions about funding and the longer term future for other programs aimed at bolstering connectivity.

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Just as COVID-19 has made the Internet a necessity for the vast majority of Americans, it has impacted the short- and long-term plans of state broadband initiatives.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and KCST, the operator of Massachusetts’ 1,200 middle-mile network, launched a new Wi-Fi hot spot program in late April. The program is setting up free Wi-Fi hot spots at public institutions — libraries, police stations, and so on — within 23 unserved communities. 

The program is intended to help citizens who don’t have fast Internet in their homes right now, but the state wants to measure the demand for the hot spots and see what it can learn for the future, said Peter Larkin, chair of the MBI board. 

“What will this evolve into?” Larkin said. “I don’t know. It’s clearly a benefit to these communities that have nothing, but it will be sort of interesting to see how this plays out.”

The hot spots can be accessed at any point during the day, and with a standard speed of 250 Mbps, they can provide reliable service for a parking lot with dozens of cars and multiple passengers in each vehicle, Larkin said. 

Larkin added that some people who live in nearby towns are coming to these hot spots. The state will examine the size of and reasons for such demand as it continues to build networks through its primary broadband program.

Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement for the Colorado Broadband Office, said a major focus for Colorado is maintaining its “COVID-19 Broadband Resources and Updates” Web page. Launched on March 23, the page breaks down information for multiple audiences: the general public, schools and libraries, health-care providers, first responders and service providers. 

The Colorado Office of eHealth Innovation just created a $2 million telemedicine grant program for projects that aim to expand access to telehealth services. Ferguson said the hope is to fund about 25 projects that will help inform long-term telemedicine efforts. 

Colorado has existing middle- and last-mile broadband grant programs, but the current crisis has made it difficult to predict how the programs will be maintained in the near future.    

“We are trying to identify how we can continue to fund these projects given the tenuous nature of the funding mechanisms,” Ferguson said. “The effect of COVID-19’s economic impact is just unknown. We don’t know what it’s going to do to these funding sources.”

Ferguson spends her days researching federal funding sources and sharing her findings with stakeholders who can then apply for money. She said every broadband policy person she knows is “absolutely scrambling” to figure how to get people connected and help others stay connected. 

Ferguson also pointed out that public video interviews with officials have revealed the limitations in the country’s broadband infrastructure. Such instances speak to how much work is left to be done throughout states. 

“You look at the pixilation of their video,” she said. “You hear the staccato in the audio. And so you know the broadband connection for these leaders is not what it needs to be to support interactive, two-way synchronous live videoconferencing.”

Stanley Adams, director of broadband initiatives for the Kansas Department of Commerce, said Kansas was about to stand up its first broadband grant program before COVID-19 disrupted the activities of the Kansas Legislature. The good news is that the state has a strong understanding of what direction it wants to take with the program, which is part of Gov. Laura Kelly’s 10-year, $85 million broadband infrastructure plan.

Adams has also observed multiple silver linings to COVID-19. He said there’s a greater urgency among stakeholders in Kansas to gather data and identify broadband gaps. Adams is seeing much more interagency cooperation in the state, and some local communities have collaborated with service providers to develop short-term solutions for citizens’ connectivity needs.   

Part of Adams’ work is to educate the public on basics, such as the difference between a megabit and a gigabit, that tech people may take for granted. He said before COVID-19, a lot of people didn’t grasp why broadband isn’t just a luxury item. Perceptions are changing now that the stakes are less theoretical and more of a reality. 

“It’s not a case where you need gaming or Netflix,” Adams said. “It’s about being able to do your homework online. It’s about being able to access large files from a health-care application standpoint.”

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.