Browse all articles

7 Ways State Broadband Administrators Can Maximize Federal Funds

If you had a billion dollars, how would you close the digital divide?

Topics: Digital Divide
Child using tablet and smiling at camera

Imagine you're the director of a state broadband office. Recent laws, namely the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), will soon put hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars at your disposal. Your job (should you decide to accept it!) is to use this money to close the digital divide.

What do you do?

You're acutely aware of how the digital divide is causing real harm to many, perhaps millions, of people in your state. You know that every day without internet access is a day that students are unable to do their homework. It's a day that patients are unable to see doctors, unemployed people are unable to find work, elders unable to connect with family, and citizens unable to receive government services like vaccines and financial assistance. The whole world is moving online, and anyone in your state without high-speed internet is being left behind.

This is the situation currently facing state broadband offices across the country as the federal government distributes over $65 billion in funding for broadband programs. At Common Sense, we've worked on these issues for a long time. So we wanted to share our advice with you. Here are seven proven ways that state administrators can maximize this opportunity:

  1. Centralize outcomes
    Remember that universal broadband is a means to an end, not the end itself. Broadband is important because of what it enables—communication, education, health care, work, civil services, business development—so promoting these activities should be central to any state broadband project. It's easy to lose this distinction and simply build networks that satisfy business-case metrics (i.e., high returns and low cost per connection). However, states that target outcome-based metrics are more likely to build networks that are scalable, affordable, long-lasting, and able to incorporate equity and skills-building initiatives.

  2. Staff up
    It is critical to have knowledgeable staff, either in house or as consultants. A broadband office should have capacity to make policy decisions, manage a grant program, review applications, verify applicant claims, conduct mapping and data collection, design digital equity programming, and support local communities as they apply for grants, use ARPA funds, participate in planning, and seek technical assistance. This is a diverse range of responsibilities, and could easily require eight or more people to manage.

  3. Consult the community
    Community input is a requirement for some federal grants, and it can be an incredibly valuable and efficient way to improve broadband programs. Community members have a nuanced understanding of the local digital divide and may have already begun working to close it. By hosting forums, public comment periods, and task forces, broadband offices can solicit valuable insights from community partners. For example, by holding a town hall, you may learn about how local churches and libraries have identified disconnected communities and have been providing free Wi-Fi or telehealth stations. Identify these partners, invite them to participate in planning sessions, fund their work, and collaborate with them to raise awareness about existing benefit programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program.

  4. Create a competitive grant program
    A grant program will determine who provides connectivity and what kind of connectivity they offer. Ensure that program rules select for high-quality applications by requiring applicants to demonstrate the following: a track record of good service, consideration of equity metrics when determining a service area, a network designed to meet current and future speed requirements, a plan to provide matching funds, and community support for their plans.

  5. Promote competition
    The lack of affordable service is a leading cause of the digital divide, and the lack of competition is a leading cause of unaffordable service. Without competition, ISPs can offer low-quality service at unaffordable prices and their subscribers will have no choice but to pay or go without—an unthinkable option for many, given the necessity of internet access in daily life. Broadband offices can incentivize competition (and in doing so, reduce prices and improve service) by supporting new ISPs, such as cooperatives and municipal providers, and by allowing new construction in areas where prices are high and/or service is poor. This can be particularly beneficial to redlined communities, where a prolonged lack of competition has allowed ISPs to underinvest in infrastructure for decades.

  6. Collect data
    There are important components to the digital divide—infrastructure, affordability, and digital literacy—and you should collect data on each. Promote speed tests, partner with mapping vendors, aggregate pricing information, conduct surveys, and add digital needs assessments to the existing data collection activities of institutions like schools, health care providers, and workforce offices.

  7. Build for the terrain
    Each state is unique and requires different construction considerations. For example, some parishes in Louisiana need broadband infrastructure that can withstand hurricane-strength winds. So overhead lines may be unadvisable. Similarly, the forested hills of West Virginia can block wireless signals, and so wired connectivity should be prioritized where possible. By understanding these constraints and building accordingly, you can promote network resilience and maximize the long-term impact of funds.

Every state's digital divide is unique, but they can all be closed by building high-quality networks that provide affordable service to every home and business. Such service has been vital during the pandemic, but it will continue to be necessary as more and more parts of our lives migrate online. We know that state broadband administrators are working hard to ensure that none of us are left behind during this transition to an online future. By following these seven steps, we are confident that these broadband leaders will succeed, and we are excited to support their work.

For additional information, please see our primer for state broadband stakeholders and guide to federal funding opportunities.

Drew Garner
Drew Garner is the state broadband policy fellow at Common Sense. He works to help state, local, and federal policymakers design and implement programs that close the digital divide. Prior to joining Common Sense, Drew worked in the U.S. Senate and in state government.