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What States Can Do to Improve Broadband Access

New research from Pew Charitable Trusts points to the need for involvement from all levels of government to help close a digital divide that has left 21 million Americans without broadband access.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard, is seen after being raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-1 mission, Feb. 28 2019, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This week a Falcon 9 rocket will launch 60 satellites of the Starlink Internet service. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images/TNS)
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According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 90 percent of the roughly 21 million Americans who don’t have access to broadband Internet live in rural communities. A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts makes it clear there is no silver bullet to closing the broadband divide across all states, but there are promising practices that states can leverage to be more successful.

The gap in access, and the desire to use broadband infrastructure to lure in new businesses and spark economic growth, drove many states to launch initiatives to spur investment in middle- and last-mile adoption starting as early as 2007. Since that time, broadband infrastructure has remained a top priority at the highest levels of state government, and has been mentioned most frequently as a key technology initiative in this year’s State of the State addresses.

Pew conducted an analysis of initiatives across nine states: California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Some of the most common practices include consistent stakeholder outreach and engagement, an established policy framework, guiding plans for capacity building, better funding and operational support and a clear way to measure success.

As broadband continues to take on new forms, such as mega-satellite constellations orbiting the globe, it will be more important than ever for state government agencies to learn from and collaborate with each other to solve the access problem.

“This isn’t just a federal, state, or local challenge,” says Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative at Pew. “What we learned is that there’s a role for every level of government in broadband expansion. This is why our first ‘promising practices’ focuses on stakeholder engagement: States are actively engaging government officials, community leaders, service providers, experts, and others to ensure that any expansion plan serves the community’s needs.”

All stakeholders bring different perspectives on broadband challenges and needs, she adds. “It requires collaboration from all three levels of government and the private sector.”

Partnerships between governments and industry to date have largely been land-based terrestrial undertakings. “What’s important to know is that broadband is a physical tool — even emerging technologies rely on wires in the ground,” says de Wit. 

But that's changing as companies, such as SpaceX and OneWeb, are working to provide satellite-based broadband. “What we’ve seen work in states is a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to infrastructure planning that enables them to meet not just the needs they have today, but also the needs of tomorrow,” she adds. “States are working to close this gap with technologies that are currently available.”

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
Dustin Haisler is the Chief Innovation Officer of Governing's parent company e.Republic. Previously the finance director and later CIO for Manor, Texas, a small city outside Austin, Haisler quickly built a track record and reputation as an early innovator in civic tech. As Chief Innovation Officer, Haisler has a strategic role to help shape the company’s products, services and future direction. Primarily, he leads e.Republic Labs, a market connector created as an ecosystem to educate, accelerate and ultimately scale technology innovation within the public sector. Read his full bio.
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