In the wake of COVID-19, states are getting more involved in implementing their own broadband policies. Ten years ago, broadband deployment strategies and policymaking fell largely within the federal domain. Now, local leaders are more likely to find supportive broadband policy much closer to home.
Several states have increased support for broadband deployment by offering grants, loans, and bonds. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of states hosting broadband offices with full-time employees increased from 8 to 25. Currently, all 50 states work toward broadband expansion through commissions, task forces, or authorities.
In State Broadband Policy: Impacts on Availability, Brian Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo analyzed broadband availability compared with the existence of three types of state broadband programs:
- State broadband offices with full-time staff;
- State broadband funding mechanisms; and
- State restrictions on municipal/cooperative broadband provision.
Overall, the study found that state-level funding mechanisms improved broadband connectivity, while statewide restrictions on community-owned networks hinder expansion in rural areas. Together, it found that the presence of a state-level funding program combined with removing restrictions on community-owned networks could improve broadband availability in rural areas by about five percent.
The study further concludes that state and federal funding mechanisms are not working together, and rather that state funding mechanisms exclude areas that receive federal funds, hindering the accumulation of capital necessary for building out networks. Whitacre and Gallardo identified little change in broadband availability in states when considering the impact of a broadband office, but note that the impact of their presence might take more time to become obvious since several states introduced broadband offices in the past six years.
As Whitacre and Gallardo admit, broadband availability data is flawed in several crucial ways that make empirical studies difficult. They explain that “[c]ollecting and employing this more detailed policy data would be an important avenue for future research.”
The FCC, the federal agency charged with reporting on the progress of broadband deployment, is implementing a new process that will make more granular data available to help inform researchers studying broadband policy and state and local governments implementing policies of their own, but it will take several years to implement. In the meantime, state and local governments are making granular broadband data available for researchers, policymakers, and the public. With accurate, current information about which areas have broadband access, researchers can more effectively measure the specific impact of broadband policies and inform future state leaders seeking to improve broadband access.