States play a critical role in bolstering local efforts to expand affordable and reliable broadband. All 50 states have taken steps to respond to increased demand and have prioritized expanding access.
As of 2018, 25 states had already explored the utility of dedicated state broadband offices. They are largely designed to serve as a central hub for implementing state strategies, leading on research and data collection that depicts the broadband landscape statewide. Importantly, state broadband officers can serve as critical intermediaries for localities, other state agencies, and the federal government programs.
In Maryland, its digital divide has impacted every community whether they are urban, suburban or rural. The Abell Foundation determined that 23% of homes were unable to get online.
On April 13th, Governor Larry Hogan signed into law Senate Bill 66, also known as the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021. The Bill establishes the Office of Statewide Broadband within the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
State Delegate Brooke Lierman was the driving force behind this legislation and partnered with State Senator Sarah Elfreth to sponsor it. She explained:
When the pandemic started, the issues that arrived in my inbox were about access to food, how to make rent, and how to send children to school online. I was able to help with the first two by organizing food drives and promoting rent assistance programs, but getting people online wasn’t something we could do immediately.
Delegate Lierman said plainly, “I didn’t understand the extent of the problem in urban and suburban Maryland. When people came to me for help there was no one at the state-level that I could turn to for support, which I found incredible.” Delegate Lierman clarified that although the Office of Rural Broadband was doing good work, it was not a codified office and had a very limited staff (one person) and mandate.
Maryand’s new state broadband office will be able to provide leadership and tech support to the communities doing this work on the ground. Delegate Lierman added, “This office will allow the state to centralize funding information, as well as support local jurisdictions in achieving universal connectivity.”
State offices are well-positioned to formulate best practices and facilitate information-sharing. “We can now send money to the State office and then have it send money to those counties and localities who need it most,” noted Delegate Lierman. “By examining what’s happening around Maryland and around the nation we can ensure that we’re connecting our communities quickly and efficiently.”
At the County level, officials welcome the addition of a state office. State support will help to supplement existing local broadband deployment and adoption efforts, and provide more assistance for local governments who haven’t yet started these programs. It will also increase consumer awareness of federal, state and local affordability programs.
Emphasizing the importance of increasing adoption alongside increasing access, Mitsuko Herrera, Montgomery Program Director stated, “A state office is in a unique position to support a traditional navigator concept. The challenge with low-income programs is sign-ups. We need more digital navigator work, which could be funded by a state office.”
Ms. Herrera also pointed out that a new state office can leverage municipal networks, device distribution programs, and digital literacy training in one area to inform other communities undertaking similar projects. Highlighting the critical nature of a state office working closely with community anchor institutions to address topics, she noted the impact on job training and the need to increase digital equity.
“The nice thing about a state broadband office is that it’s housed near other state agencies that are working on similar projects,” said Ms. Herrera. “This allows for much easier access to the agencies working on affordable housing or economic development. Collaboration is key to increasing digital equity across the board.”
The creation of a new state broadband office in Maryland offers a myriad of new opportunities to connect residents. However, state officials must continue to work with the local officials that are on the ground responding to the urgent and ongoing connectivity challenges that persist in their communities. A state office can serve as an important resource, convener, and information hub, but close collaboration with local leadership is required to turn new information into meaningful results.