June Guest Blog: Op-Ed - A Blueprint for Expanding Broadband
Op-Ed: A Blueprint for Expanding Broadband
Bev Perdue is the founder and chair of digiLearn: Digital Learning Institute, and a former governor of North Carolina
Ben Coulter, Ed.D., is the State Director for WGU North Carolina
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the migration of public instruction and areas of commerce online, it has also highlighted the digital divide between those who do and don’t have reliable high-speed internet.
Currently, at least 14.5 million Americans, many in rural areas, lack access to high-speed internet. In North Carolina, it is estimated that 40% of homes don’t have high-speed internet, either because the areas they live in lack the infrastructure, or because they can’t afford it.
Having high-quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to remote and improved education, commerce, telework, telehealth, community resources, and more.
As was stated in a webinar hosted by the Hunt Institute last year, we need a major initiative to address broadband access like we did with rural highways and electrification in the 20th Century.
Infusions of capital – such as the $750 million from federal funds that the North Carolina House recently approved unanimously – will certainly help expand broadband access in our state. Through cost-sharing among local governments, the state, and private providers, Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, estimates the total investment could be nearly $1.4 billion.
Additionally, free internet hotspots and programs like Western Governors University’s Online Access Scholarships that cover the cost of installing and accessing the internet can benefit select families and students. However, a more extensive and coordinated effort is needed.
Recognizing the multiple benefits of connectivity, governors across the country are implementing a range of policies and solutions to expand access and increase affordability. The National Governors Association recently released a white paper titled “Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access” that recommends several key strategies and best practices.
- Establish robust, cross-cutting governance structures – At least 20 states and territories have established dedicated broadband offices through executive action or legislation. Our state has the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure office within the Department of Information Technology.
- Initiate partnerships with other state agencies, local and county governments, and other entities to kickstart broadband investments – In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper created the Governor’s Task Force on Connecting North Carolina, which connects the Governor’s Office, state agencies and industry partners, and avails the state’s broadband expansion campaign to outside expertise, funding streams, relationship networks and technical assistance capacity.
- Leverage anchor institutions to provide rapid community internet service – Historically, community anchor institutions (schools, libraries, medical facilities, government buildings, etc.) have served as critical connection points for last-mile fiber development to communities.
- Leverage existing infrastructure projects with dig-once coordination – States have cut broadband infrastructure deployment costs by enhancing agency coordination and coordination with stakeholders in the planning, construction and maintenance of infrastructure assets. This “dig-once” strategy takes advantage of existing construction or repair of roads or water pipes to simultaneously install conduit or run fiber at a lower cost.
- Leverage electric utilities’ infrastructure and services to facilitate deployments of broadband networks – Governors can work with broadband service providers and utilities, including investor-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives, through public-private partnerships and grant programs to extend broadband coverage by using existing infrastructure backbones and rights-of-way, leasing capacity to other providers and reaching unserved rural-cooperative customer bases.
- Coordinate and expand broadband affordability programs – The N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office convenes a group of digital equity leaders and inclusion-focused organizations to share best practices and coordinate on strategies to close the state’s digital divide, including promoting existing low-cost programs. Nationally, the FCC just announced a new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that will give low-income households a $50 monthly subsidy to pay for broadband internet.
- Improve broadband coverage maps – To create a more accurate representation of the level of broadband service being provided, states have developed alternative mapping strategies that provide more data at higher granularity. The Broadband Infrastructure Office has partnered with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University to conduct an internet-access and speed-test survey, which has received more than 36,000 responses to date.
- Identify funding and financing sources for broadband deployment – Many states have dedicated state funding mechanisms to address middle-mile and last-mile broadband expansion. These are often supplemented by federal programs that offer grants to states, municipalities and other entities to accelerate broadband deployment, including FCC programs such as the Universal Service Fund or Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
The key strategies and best practices put forth in the NGA’s white paper form a valid blueprint for expanding affordable broadband access. To read the full white paper, visit www.nga.org/center/publications/expand-affordable-broadband/.