Governors Start 2021 by Expanding Access to Broadband

Governors are proposing record levels of investments in broadband infrastructure.

by Jake Varn, Policy Analyst, Infrastructure

Tens of millions of Americans lack a reliable, high-speed internet connection due to either the absence of adequate infrastructure or the unaffordability of service at sufficient speeds. The Census Bureau estimates that as of January 2021, at least 3.8 million households with school-aged children either only sometimes, rarely, or never have internet access from their homes. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the internet had arguably already become an essential service for participating in modern society. Today, the internet’s essential status is no longer arguable.

As Governors continue to deliver their State of the State Addresses, expanding affordable, high-speed internet access has emerged as a key priority for states and territories in 2021. To date, at least 40 Governors have highlighted broadband infrastructure, and the technologies required for remote learning and telemedicine, as critical to closing equity gaps and for responding to both the coronavirus related pandemic and the associated economic crisis.

These emphases on broadband infrastructure come on the heels of the $900 billion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress at the end of 2020, which included a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund to be administered by the Federal Communications Commission. This fund will provide $50-per-month internet subsidies for low-income households or those that have lost employment as a result of the pandemic, $75-per-month internet subsidies for service on tribal lands, and discounts for connected devices.

Excerpts of Governor Speeches (click to view)

Beyond the Speeches

Matching rhetoric with action, many Governors also started 2021 by launching new broadband initiatives and program expansions in their 2021 state budget proposals. Governors have a key role in expanding broadband access, with a unique capacity to set policy priorities, connect multiple agencies, and work across jurisdictions on the inherently intersectional nature of broadband policy. Many programs and investments Governors announced in 2021 follow the best practices identified in NGA’s recent paper, “Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access.

Establishing Robust, Cross-Cutting Governance Structures

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont introduced a new plan to promote broadband build-out and increase equitable access, setting a statewide goal for universal access by 2027. Accordingly, the proposed budget includes resources for the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to create a dedicated broadband office to track deployment policies and standards, and resources to increase mapping efforts, support municipal governments, and coordinate deployment though dig-once policies and the permitting process. The proposal also includes regulatory oversight reforms and consumer protections under the state’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Initiating Strategic Partnerships to Kickstart Broadband Investments

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill amending the state’s Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act to allow municipal governments to build broadband infrastructure.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced a new $9 million initiative, Mass Internet Connect, to improve broadband internet access in communities that lack reliable access. The program will partner with service providers Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon, and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile Program to support broadband services for underserved communities.

Leveraging Anchor Institutions

California Governor Gavin Newsom released a 2021–2022 budget proposal to increase funding for broadband access to the state’s public education institutions and to support distance learning opportunities. The proposal includes nearly $1 million for state library access and $8 million for the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (which provides broadband access to the state’s public libraries, community colleges, state universities, and other educational entities). In total, the state expects to provide $354 million over the next five years for broadband infrastructure improvements and technology investments. The proposed budget builds on Gov. Newsom’s 2020 Executive Order launching the recently released California Broadband Action Plan, and the goals set to make affordable and inclusive broadband access available to all Californians.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a broadband proposal to bridge the “homework gap” by launching a new hardship fund to pay for internet subscriptions for students who cannot afford a $15-per-month plan during the COVID-19 crisis. The fund will be created in partnership with Gov. Cuomo’s blue-ribbon Reimagine New York Commission, Schmidt Futures and the Ford Foundation. Further, to ensure students also get the laptops and hot-spots they need, New York will expedite Smart Schools Bond Act funding to school districts to meet outstanding device needs.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s proposed budget includes an $118 million investment in broadband expansion, with more than $10 million dedicated to expanding connectivity for schools without sufficient broadband services. This proposal also focuses on providing access to communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Leveraging Existing Infrastructure Projects with Dig-Once Coordination

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is proposing to invest more than $40 million in 2021 to expand broadband across rural Arizona. Gov. Ducey’s 2021 policy vision for rural broadband includes the recommendation to “open the rights of way along our state highways to help private broadband companies find cost-effective routes to our underserved rural communities.”

The proposal includes investing $33.1 million to add 195 miles of broadband conduit and fiber along Arizona’s I-40. The Governor also proposed investing $10 million to expand the Rural Broadband Development Grant Program, aimed at accelerating the development of last-mile rural broadband infrastructure, directly connecting homes and businesses.

Leveraging Electric Utilities Infrastructure and Services

Vermont Governor Phil Scott’s budget proposal includes $20 million to extend internet to more Vermont homes by leveraging local utilities, with $1.5 million dedicated to help local utility and communications districts plan for broadband buildout.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp highlighted a new partnership between electric cooperatives Central Georgia Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) and Southern Rivers Energy, and the internet service provider Conexon, to expand broadband access to an estimated 80,000 households across an 18-county, 6,890-mile fiber network. At the press conference announcing the partnership, Gov. Kemp said, “[This] will have a real impact on the lives of countless hard-working Georgians. With expanded broadband access comes new job opportunities, improved education tools, and access to telemedicine. This partnership is why I signed Senate Bill 2 in 2019 to allow EMCs the authority to provide broadband service. The legislation was intended to encourage what you see today – EMCs and community leaders, working together on creative solutions to close the gap between those with internet service and those without. This is an important leap forward, but make no mistake: We are just getting started.”

Coordinating and Expanding Affordability Programs

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his proposal to enact a “first-in-the-nation” requirement for affordable internet for all low-income families, by requiring all internet providers to offer a service plan priced at $15 per month to low-income households. The affordability requirements are part of Gov. Cuomo’s 2021 connectivity agenda, which also includes a series of actions to protect consumers through better disclosures, promote broadband build-out and market competition, and undertake new digital inclusion efforts. New York is also launching a website to help New Yorkers find an affordable service plan in their area and report on coverage gaps and consumer experiences.

The broadband initiative in Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s proposed budget includes a new Urban Connectivity program through Oregon Housing and Community Services to create a subsidy for urban communities that have broadband access but face affordability barriers limiting adoption.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers announced a $200 million broadband proposal in his State of the State address, dubbing 2021 as the “year of broadband access.” The proposal includes$40 million for supporting affordability programs for low-income households and $150 million for grants to build out broadband infrastructure.

Improving Broadband Coverage Maps

On Jan. 21, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear and Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman announced the launch of the Kentucky Broadband Speed Test, to better identify where expanded internet access is most needed. The program will collect anonymous internet speed data from Jan. 19 to Feb. 18. Gov. Beshear’s budget proposal for 2021 contains $50 million dedicated to broadband expansion for areas in need.

North Carolina has launched a new broadband data dashboard, which includes the first six months of results from the state’s ongoing survey of residents’ internet speed tests. The dashboard is updated daily and created in partnership with the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, the North Carolina Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, and North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

Other Recent Broadband Highlights

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s new budget proposals include $40 million to establish a Rural Innovation Fund and $30 million to continue building high-speed broadband connectivity in rural areas ($20 million for the current fiscal year and $10 million for each year going forward).

Idaho Governor Brad Little’s “Building Idaho’s Future” plan to invest in the state’s infrastructure proposes a combined $54 million for broadband and economic development, specifically to, “bring broadband access to rural unserved or underserved households.”

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is awarding more than $20 million in broadband grants to 39 projects in the sixth year of the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program. The state grant dollars are matched by more than $33 million in local funds and will provide new or improved access to nearly 7,000 businesses, homes, and community anchor institutions.

Echoing his remarks in the State of the State address, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts testified at the state Legislature’s transportation and telecommunications committee in favor of Legislative Bill 388, stating, “It’s important that Nebraska invest in broadband access just like was invested in rural electrification and rural telephones to make sure we grow the entire state… We’ve got to have this infrastructure, it’s basic.”

If passed, the bill would create a Broadband Bridge Program to distribute $20 million per year for the next two years to underserved and unserved communities, defined as those that lack internet service that reaches a threshold speed of either 25/3 mbps (unserved) or 100/25 (underserved). The grants would be for projects that are able to meet a minimum of 100/100 mbps, with a priority on the unserved population and projects that leverage federal funds. The state estimates that the program would expand access to 30,000 Nebraskans.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s 2022 – 2023 budget proposal includes $290 million for new broadband expansion programs, with $125 million per year focused on broadband infrastructure grants and $20 million per year for residential expansion grants.

In a letter to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, Governor Tom Wolf highlighted a number of the state’s federal priorities on infrastructure, including increased funding for broadband, stating, “It is absolutely critical that additional funding for broadband access be included in federal legislation, so that our commonwealth can meet the challenges of the 21st century and embrace new opportunities for growth and competitiveness.” 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s proposed budget called for appropriating $100 million to expand high-speed rural broadband access in the state, as appears in South Dakota Senate Bill 34. The bill would give priority to projects that 1) leverage private investment, federal grants, or existing infrastructure, 2) serve a location that does not have access to broadband speeds above 100/20 mbps, and 3) efficiently connect the most homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions at the highest speeds. In the annual budget address, Gov. Noem also touted the return on investment the broadband program Connect SD has delivered to South Dakota.

In a listening session with construction workers, small business leaders, and advocates, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that in this legislative session, Texas lawmakers must remove barriers that slow down and prevent broadband deployment. In his biennial address to the Texas Legislature, Gov. Abbott identified increasing broadband access as one of five emergency items up for immediate consideration.

The first budget request of newly elected Utah Governor Spencer Cox includes a one-time investment of $50 million for expanding broadband and fiber access. Gov. Cox’s budget also recommends renovating state facilities and reconfiguring state workspaces with a $50 million one-time investment and $3 million in ongoing funding to avoid future capital development costs and facilitate a continued focus of telework, and for state agencies to solidify and expand telework as a part of the state workplace culture.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the awarding of nearly $30 million in grants to be used to expand high-speed internet across Virginia, the awarded grants are estimated to reach more than 11,700 households. The funding, provided through the state Department of Housing and Community Development, targets regions currently underserved by high-speed internet providers. The funding is being distributed as part of a $50 million commitment made by Governor Northam as part of his 2020 budget, and he is proposing an additional $15 million proposed for Virginia’s 2022 budget.

Continued Focus

At NGA, we will continue to provide Governors’ offices and their staff with resources and guidance on the best practices and innovative strategies for expanding affordable broadband access, including standing up a new network of Governors’ broadband advisors in February to coordinate on broadband expansion and affordability. More information can be found at: