Access to high quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to commerce, remote work opportunities, remote and improved education, telehealth, intelligent agriculture, and more.
Increasing access to the internet and improving the affordability of broadband services has been a long-standing priority for Governors; more than twenty states now have dedicated broadband offices to address the digital divide while more have robust governance structures that include task forces, working groups, and committees.
Access to high quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to commerce, remote work opportunities, remote and improved education, telehealth, intelligent agriculture, and more. However, 18.3 million Americans, many in rural geographies, still lack access to even basic levels of broadband service and even more are unable to afford the service available to them.
While the need for accessible and affordable broadband extends far beyond the current crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a newfound urgency to broadband expansion. Connectivity has become essential for people to follow public health guidelines, school closures, and remote work requirements.
As Governors increase state efforts to expand affordable broadband access, particularly in response to the ongoing pandemic, several key strategies and best practices have emerged that can facilitate those efforts, including to:
- —Establish robust, cross-cutting governance structures
- —Initiate partnerships with other state agencies, local and county governments, and other entities to kickstart broadband investments
- —Leverage anchor institutions to provide rapid community internet service
- —Leverage existing infrastructure projects with dig-once coordination
- —Leverage electric utilities’ infrastructure and services to facilitate deployments of broadband networks
- —Coordinate and expand broadband affordability programs
- —Deploy innovative procurement strategies
- —Improve broadband coverage maps
- —Identify funding and financing sources for broadband deployment
According to the FCC, in 2018, at least 18.3 million people lacked access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum internet speed of 25/3. Of those 18.3 million people, representing 6 percent of the total population, 14 million live in rural areas and 1 million live on Tribal lands, which amounts to 22 percent and 28 percent of those respective geographic populations. In response to the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a series of household pulse surveys, which found that as of July 2020 an estimated 2.8 million people with children in school either never or only rarely or never have access to the internet for educational purposes. Additionally, 4 million people with children in school are estimated to lack a computer or similarly suitable device. Further, studies have claimed that the FCC data is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access, and that the total may be as high as 42 million people. As the minimum acceptable speed threshold is raised, access becomes more scarce—only 75 percent of Americans have access to broadband services that provides a faster 100 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload.
In addition to lack of access, the cost of broadband services remains a considerable barrier for many households. According to research from BroadbandNow, only 51 percent of Americans have access to broadband that costs $60 per month or less, however this may not reflect recent services and discounts providers have begun offering in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The international Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development sets a threshold for an entry-level affordable broadband service at 2 percent of a country’s average monthly income. Adjusting that metric for each bracket of U.S. household income, a $60 per month broadband service would be unaffordable for 28 percent of households. According to surveys from the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of those that lack access to broadband in the U.S. cite the monthly cost of the service as a factor. Notably, survey data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) estimates that in 2019, the number of people without internet access at home could be as high as 26.2 million, but that 60 percent of respondents cited a lack of “need or not interested” as the primary reason.
Access to affordable broadband also has significant equity implications, as communities of color and low-income areas have seen lower rates of broadband adoption. As of 2019, NTIA surveys report 67 percent of Black and Hispanic adults had at home broadband services, compared to 77 percent of white adults. While broadband adoption has increased over time for all populations, there has been a persistent racial gap in adoption rates. Surveys from Pew Research Center also show that adults making less than $30,000 are half as likely to report having home internet access as adults making $75,000 or more, with only 56 percent reporting access in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on these broadband gaps and the need for universal coverage.
Fortunately, Governors across the country have made expanding affordable broadband access a core policy goal. All 50 states and most territories have staff devoted to broadband activities, with more than 20 establishing dedicated broadband offices and 22 Governors specifically highlighted the need for broadband expansion in their 2020 State of the State addresses. At a recent NGA roundtable, several state, federal and policy experts discussed challenges and highlighted policy solutions for Governors to address coverage gaps, cost inequities and expand access to high quality, low cost broadband across their states. This paper will present the use cases for expanded broadband access and highlight best practices Governors can consider as they implement solutions to the most pressing connectivity challenges states face.
Challenges addressed by this paper include:
- An accelerated need for new affordable connectivity across sectors and end-uses for increased teleworking, telemedicine, online learning and e-commerce as a large share of the population in both urban and rural areas are isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Data challenges and opportunities for states to identify and map coverage gaps
- Solutions to improve the affordability of broadband service and equity of broadband access
- The traditional economic business model challenges for middle mile and last mile connection in rural communities
- Federal funding, while critical, can be narrowly scoped and challenging to navigate
- The need to enhance digital literacy for newly connected individuals
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the reality that many aspects of modern-day life, including commerce, health care, education and social activity, are dependent on connectivity. Layered across these uses are social, economic and geographic factors that limit equitable access. The pandemic exacerbates disparities caused by the absence of reliable broadband, but the need for accessible and affordable broadband extends far beyond the current situation. The list below outlines the many use cases that are motivating governors to seek expanded access to broadband.
Telework: One of the most immediate changes caused by COVID-19 was a massive workplace shift to teleworking for those who are able and not deemed essential workers. Nearly half of Americans are now working from home and many organizations may shift to increased remote work as a new paradigm. While remote work is not possible across all industries or job functions, where it is, household connectivity is vital to maintaining a stable and engaged workforce. Expansive broadband will ensure that workers can remain connected and productive from home.
Remote learning: Students increasingly rely on connectivity for remote learning, yet as many as 12 million K-12 students lack internet access at home. Further, broadband access also plays a critical role in higher education, workforce training and continuing education as students increasingly turn to online courses for certifications and university degrees. This gap is accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic as many schools remain closed to reduce virus transmission and students are increasingly required to attend classes via remote learning platforms.
Telehealth: Telehealth and other virtual care services are an important component of health care delivery, especially where health care services – particularly specialists – are less available, such as in rural communities. Telehealth access has enabled care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow individuals to remain at home while maintaining continued access to health care services. Through increased remote access to health care providers and improved digital literacy skills, residents can continue to receive critical care virtually while coronavirus transmission remains a concern. An analysis by FAIR Health found that remote services insurance claims in April 2020 rose more than 8,000 percent from prior year, demonstrating a significant increase in the uptake of telehealth. Telehealth has helped many providers remain financially solvent during the emergency, due to relatively steady provider services and patient volume. One study found that in May, telehealth services made up 14 percent of all visits, up from 1 percent in mid-March.
Commerce: Commerce is reliant on connectivity, whether for digital commerce, freight logistics, fleet management, automated manufacturing, or asset tracking. With many jurisdictions requiring business closures and issuing stay-at-home orders, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened this need. Purchasing groceries, medicine and other essentials online reduces crowds and promotes both public health and productivity.
Agriculture: Expanded broadband service to rural communities is enabling increased automation and efficiencies in agriculture. Nearly 50 percent of row crops are farmed using guiding technology and broadband services contributes between $18 and $23 billion in added productivity in agriculture. Farming with connected technologies can enable better crop yields, efficient business management and sustainable planting.
Infrastructure Modernization: As connected infrastructure technologies continue to advance, broadband access is a necessity for digital infrastructure deployment. Broadband allows utilities to remotely monitor and automate electricity, fuel and water distribution systems. Broadband also enables advanced metering that can more accurately track usage, adjust demand and identify water and natural gas pipe leaks. Broadband also allows for asset to asset communications, such as vehicle-to roadway, enabling automation.
Emergency Response and Public Safety: The United States has suffered 273 distinct, billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 1980 with aggregate costs of $1.79 trillion, increasing in rate and severity in recent years. Broadband can play a critical role to facilitate states’ recovery efforts by allowing emergency responders to remain connected and facilitating timely emergency communications and directives to vulnerable populations. As new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles are deployed, broadband can assist in search and rescue and remote observation capabilities to improve response while keeping first responders safe.
Options for Technology Deployment: How is Broadband Accessed?
Governors looking to increase access to affordable, reliable broadband in the near term have a range of technology solutions to consider; each with its own trade-offs on cost, speed, reliability, immediacy of deployment and application. Governors may wish to target a mix of technologies that expedite deployment alongside longer-term efforts to expand fixed broadband infrastructure.
Wired or “Wireline” broadband technology is transmission technology that sends data through physical connections. Examples of wireline include fiber optic cables, digital subscriber line (DSL) or a cable modem. Wired broadband deployment is generally the preferred long-term strategy to reach state connectivity goals. NGA Vice Chair Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, for example, released a state broadband connectivity plan building on previous legislation that enabled government entities and public-private partnerships to provide broadband services. The accompanying state connectivity needs assessment from the Governor’s office emphasized wired connections.
- Phone and Cable Connections: Broadband is often offered through copper telephone wires already connected to the home (known as a “digital subscriber line” or DSL) or through coaxial cable connections to a home’s TV through the cable wall outlet and computer modem, two technologies that are relatively widely accessible. DSL coverage availability nationally is high, but speeds and costs vary for residential and business users. DSL download speeds range from 5-35 megabits per second (Mpbs) whereas cable speeds can be as high as 500 Mbps or, in some cases, even a gigabit per second., , Telecommunications industry data point to high cable broadband availability and decreasing per-megabit costs, indicating states may have opportunities to leverage available cable broadband networks to expand broadband use through increased subscriptions.
- Fiberoptics: Fiberoptic technology converts information from electric signals into light and transmits that information through cables containing hair-thin glass fibers. This enables transmission speeds that can be quicker than DSL or cable and large data-carrying capacities with reduced interference. Fiber technology is thus the focus of many public and private broadband expansion projects and is generally regarded as the long-term technological connectivity solution. As an infrastructure investment, deploying fiberoptic technology can carry significant capital costs and regulatory hurdles. The FCC, in its 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, pointed to high year-over-year growth in fiber broadband network availability, becoming available to 6.5 million new homes in 2019. The United States Department of Agriculture has invested heavily in broadband projects focused on fiber deployment through the Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program.
Wireless broadband connects users to service providers through a mobile or fixed device in a home or business that communicates wirelessly between the customer and provider locations. Wireless options include fixed terrestrial and fixed satellite, mobile and wireless local area networking. These technologies are considered “last mile” (as are cable and DSL wireline technologies) because they connect the user’s location to a fiberoptic internet access point. While wireless capabilities bring lower transmission speeds than fiberoptics, deployment may be cheaper and faster, particularly in areas with lower population density, as physical connections to homes do not need to be made.
Mobile Wireless: This category includes wireless broadband delivery through portable modems or mobile devices that provide internet like smartphones.
- Wi-Fi Hotspots: Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology connects mobile devices and computers to the internet at short range. Device wireless adapters process and communicate data from and into radio signals that pass through antennae and a router. Local wireless networks located in a public space or building, such as a parking lot or library, can provide a quick internet connection for mobile device users lacking broadband service at home. While public hotspots are not a sustainable solution to households lacking reliable internet access, hotspot deployment has been a common strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic for state and local governments to deliver quick, temporary internet access to those without.
- Cellular and 5G:As mobile technology improves data transmission over time, an increasing number of Americans rely on their smartphones for internet access. The next phase, 5G or fifth generation cellular technology, offers reduced latency and support for a more connected environment (i.e., the “internet of things”). The FCC suggests 5G speeds could be up to 300 Mbps versus 4G at 12 to 36 Mbps.
Small cells, or small radio antennae technology that connect to main fiber lines and extend service to dense user clusters, are key to the 5G rollout., Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer limited 5G coverage in select markets, but current barriers render the technology a medium to longer-term solution better suited for upgrading connectivity speeds in densely populated areas rather than expanding coverage to new geographies.
Several states have enacted legislation addressing infrastructure regulations like co-location of small cells on other infrastructure (North Carolina), local fee limits (Georgia), authorizing state agencies to regulate on small rights-of-way related to wireless facilities on state highways (West Virginia) and other legislation to facilitate “small wireless facility” deployment and address associated permitting and rights-of-way issues.
Fixed Wireless: Fixed Wireless uses radio airwaves to connect the end user to an internet access point like a fiber optic line through receivers located on the user’s premises. Fixed Wireless requires a line of sight to the main access point, potentially limiting range. Because the technology uses radio waves, fixed wireless deployment also requires available spectrum, which is limited and increasingly scarce as the FCC seeks to support 5G networks and the increasing use of Wi-Fi devices.
Satellite: Orbiting satellites can provide satellite wireless broadband. While satellite broadband is not bound by a wired tower and can thus offer expansive coverage and faster connection, cost to the provider and customer can be high., Satellite technology is common for first responders as an alternative to cell communications. Increasingly, the private sector is deploying innovative new satellite networks with the potential to deliver broad and affordable service. In 2018, the FCC approved SpaceX’s Starlink venture and the company has since launched the first of its 12,000 satellite array. In July 2020, Amazon’s Project Kuiper similarly received FCC approval to launch a global array of 3,236 low earth orbit satellites to connect unserved and underserved populations.
Relevant Technological Concepts
Middle Mile:Connects local, “last mile” networks to core broadband networks. Middle mile infrastructure links large scale broadband infrastructure to a provider network service area or local anchor institutions so last mile technologies can connect end users to those local nodes.
Last Mile: Connects residences, businesses and other users to the internet backbone – most likely a physical fiber line. As fiber is an expensive and construction-heavy infrastructure project, other technologies like wireless options can help economically bridge the last mile between the main broadband infrastructure and individual user locations.
Spectrum: A range of electromagnetic frequencies for wireless communication that the FCC specifically designates for federal or commercial uses like broadcast television, public safety radio systems and the Broadband Radio Service and Educational Broadband Service. The FCC leaves some spectrum open (unlicensed); Wi-Fi routers use spectrum to transmit data and the average person on Wi-Fi is using unlicensed spectrum.
White space: An available communications spectrum that currently functions as unused space between television station channels. Television stations are often geographically distanced, and some channels are unused, so new technologies could access this spectrum for broadband connectivity and deliver service. The FCC has previously authorized radio devices to access this spectrum without a license and in February 2020 proposed to modify white space rules including antenna height and transmission power to increase flexibility for devices in rural areas to expand coverage by accessing white space.
Governors’ Solutions to Expand Broadband
Recognizing the multiple benefits of connectivity, Governors are implementing a range of policies and programmatic solutions to expand access and increase affordability. While many of these efforts historically focused on expanding wired infrastructure, the growing ubiquity of internet-enabled mobile devices, along with the persistent difficulty of expanding fiber in many rural regions, has made wireless technologies a viable alternative. However, for the highest speeds and most reliable connection, fiber remains the gold standard. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new urgency for these expansion efforts and, as a result, Governors are increasingly implementing nearer-term solutions to bridge coverage gaps and provide affordable access to those who lack it. However, ubiquitous fiber infrastructure remains a core objective.
Governors have many policy and programmatic tools at their disposal to provide both immediate and long-term access to broadband. The below strategies are marked to symbolize either solutions for service that can be deployed quickly and at lower cost, but may not provide full connectivity or the highest speeds (referred to as “nearer-term solutions”), or longer-term, more permanent solutions for technologies such as fiber (referred to as “longer-term solutions”), or marked with both for strategies that can be applied towards both objectives. Click each solution for details.
CARES Act State Spending Uses
On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was signed into law, bringing with it more than $2 trillion in economic stimulus. The CARES Act included funding provisions for individuals, the private sector and state and local governments. States are rapidly determining how to spend funding allocations, working toward an end-of-year allocation deadline. Where allowable under U.S. Treasury guidelines, broadband investments have been a priority for multiple states, such as investments to upgrade distanced learning capacity. Many states are funding device purchases for students and teachers and Wi-Fi routers in school buses, prioritizing rural and low-income individuals. The below table describes selected examples of how Governors are deploying CARES Act funding on broadband. Since new allocations continue to be made, this table should be considered a snapshot in time.
Select State Investments in Broadband Leveraging CARES Act Funding
Alabama: Allocated up to $300 million for expenditures related to remote learning, $53 million for remote work, and established a broadband working group to guide CARES Act funding toward relevant broadband projects.
Arkansas: Allocated $10 million to seven telecommunications companies to expand broadband access in rural communities.
Delaware: $20 million for broadband infrastructure, with $13 million directed toward wireless vouchers and devices for underserved families with school-age children.
Idaho: $50 million for broadband infrastructure – directing funding to private companies to make broadband investments.
Iowa: $85 million for expanding telework, telehealth and remote learning through broadband expansion. Opened $50 million in CARES act funding to award grants for broadband infrastructure expansion. The program is run through the existing Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program.
Kansas: Allocated more than $130 million toward coronavirus response. While broadband expansion is not the entirety of these relief funds, it is an eligible activity. One grant supports telework and telehealth needs, while a separate grant funds remote learning needs for low-income households.
Michigan: $25 million to support connectivity for school children and their families. Fund to cover several device-purchasing options to support remote learning expansion in the next 3-6 months. More incentives are made towards communities with higher poverty rates.
Mississippi: Allocating $275 million in federal funding toward broadband – $65 million to state’s electric co-ops for rural broadband expansion. Program matches federal funding with broadband expansion costs borne by the utilities. Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Act set up a $50 million special fund in state treasury to grants for school districts in compliance with CARES Act. $150 million is allocated to school districts to purchase laptops for students and boost distanced learning capabilities.
Missouri: $10 million for remote K-12 learning – reimburses school districts for increasing student connectivity and campus Wi-Fi networks. $10 million for higher ed distanced learning needs. $5.25 million for telehealth, with plans to install more than 12,500 hotspots. $20 million to reimburse broadband providers. $2.5 million for library resources that will support hotspots and Wi-Fi access for telehealth and higher ed resources. Additional funding available for broadband technical assistance requests.
Nevada: $50 million for K-12 schools to create alternative intensive instruction. This program targets students “likely to develop the largest deficits in education attainment” from a lack of in-school learning. Students include English as Second Language students, low-income students, those with low test scores or at low performing schools, among others.
New Hampshire: $50 million for broadband – seeking applications for enhancing remote learning, remote work and telehealth. Again, this application is on an accelerated time scale, with the application open for two weeks and notifications two weeks later. All projects must be completed by December 15.
New Mexico: $1.5 million in CARES Act funds for broadband technical assistance for local and tribal governments and other groups to advance broadband deployment and help communities prepare for Federal funding opportunities. Partnered with the N.M. Public Education Department and others to identify, promote and support broadband solutions for K-12 students that reside in unserved or underserved areas of the state. As of June 2020, this collaborative has used CARES Act funding to purchase and distribute 700 residential hotspots (Navajo Nation), thousands of Chromebooks and numerous other fixed and mobile hotspot devices for Tribal communities.
North Carolina:$672,000 for telework capabilities. Gov. Cooper signed legislation to provide $56 million for distanced learning activities including installing Wi-Fi routers in school buses, providing home internet access points, purchases computers for K-12 students and teachers, as well as providing funding for cybersecurity infrastructure.
North Dakota: $23.9 million for telework, $17 million for cybersecurity and $26.8 million for digital government services.
Puerto Rico: $40 million for telework program, $40 million for telemedicine program.
South Carolina: Allocating $50 million to broadband programs. One program targets all students to provide mobile hotspots in 100,000 qualifying households. Funding will also support identified areas of need and a mapping program.
South Dakota: Governor Kristi Noem announced CARES Act funds would support the K-12 Connect program to provide internet service at no cost to eligible K-12 students in their homes for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
Tennessee: Governor Bill Lee announced $61 million to be allocated for emergency broadband funds to support telehealth, remote learning and telework services. The state allocated $60 million of general funds towards broadband and this new funding will potentially support projects that were previously denied due to a lack of program funding.
Vermont: $17.5 million to a new COVID-Response Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program, supplements lifeline program, telehealth services, remote learning or telework needs, with $2.5 million segmented out to separately address telecommunications services, telehealth, connected Communications Union Districts.
Virginia:$30 million in CARES Act funding for broadband projects. Localities are encouraged to apply with projects that “creatively address the digital divide, including projects that address infrastructure or the cost of broadband services.”
West Virginia: $50 million for general broadband development.
Wyoming: Coordination between Governor Mark Gordon and the state Business Council identified several broadband expansion projects and deployed $55 million of CARES Act funding.
While this white paper offers many solutions to broadband expansion challenges, there are additional remaining hurdles Governors may need to address. First, many federal funding sources are program specific, constraining state or local spending to specific priorities, regions or end uses, such as rural health care or education. These funds designated for one end use can often have broader benefits (for example, Wi-Fi for educational purposes can be used for telehealth visits) so it can be important to consider the full range of benefits of individual investments. These single end-uses may also be limiting, as a small incremental cost to expand the scope of a program for greater community benefit may be unallowable. Ensuring cross-sector linkages are made can help to ensure the better utilization of limited funds.
State broadband expansion also faces financial challenges that may bar potential internet providers access to the market and reduce competition. In rural areas, low population densities may make new investment uneconomic for traditional providers. In low income urban areas, there may be a lack of incentive for new entrants to compete, resulting in monopolies or duopolies that keep prices high. Governors can consider how investments may reduce these barriers for new and alternative providers to enter those markets. Further, Governors may wish to explore any policy or regulatory barriers that prohibit new market entrants from competing.
Expanding broadband access and increasing affordability have been top policy priorities for Governors. As the necessity of internet access has rapidly grown over the past three decades, states have established and modified a variety of best practices to increase the deployment of broadband infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an immediate urgency to provide internet access so that people can continue to work, attend school, and access critical services virtually while abiding by telework requirements, required distance learning, and stay at home orders necessitated by public health guidance. This rapid mobilization has taxed systems and agencies, creating a tension between the need to balance short-term fixes with longer-term investments and more permanent infrastructure projects. The strategies laid out in this paper demonstrate how Governors are tackling these challenges and the emerging best practices for expanding affordable broadband access.
The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and this report’s authors thank the state officials and other experts who attended the virtual Experts’ Roundtable in May 2020 that informed this paper. NGA appreciates the additional experts and NGA Partners who offered insights and feedback. NGA also thanks Western Governors University (WGU) for its support of the roundtable and publication of this paper. To support affordable broadband access, WGU has announced the Online Access Scholarship Program to cover the cost of high-speed internet access and provide devices to students who need and cannot afford them. For more information visit: WGU.edu.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
- Matthew Rogotzke – Policy Analyst
- Timothy Schoonhoven – Policy Analyst
- Jake Varn – Policy Analyst
- Dan Lauf – Program Director
Recommended Citation Format
Rogotzke, M. Schoonhoven, T. Varn, J. & Lauf, D. (2020, October). Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access. Washington, D.C.: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.