In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic many individuals and families found themselves spending more time at home, with much of that time spent connected to the internet. For some communities this transition went seamlessly, work from home, remote schooling or the holiday family video call went off without a hitch; however, many Americans did not fare well in this transition. For many rural communities the reliance on wireless communication was a burden on them and their families which was led wholly by poor broadband investment. Many rural communities’ networks could not support the increased bandwidth that was demanded during the pandemic. This lack of broadband infrastructure in rural communities revealed itself as an Achilles heel of rural America. Recognizing this issue, many governors and legislatures across the country have stepped up and began massive funding programs to overhaul broadband in their rural communities.
Lawmakers are using various strategies to fund these investments. Some of the most common funding sources are coming from the federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which directly stipulated funding to be used for infrastructure investments such as broadband, while others are using budget surpluses or other creative measures to boost expansion.
Just last week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam shifted over $700 million in relief funds to improve rural broadband access. The goal of the program is to “help close the digital divide for some of the poorest regions of [Virginia].” The Governor hopes that by 2024 that divide will be closed and that the deployment of these funds will help those in the poorest, and most rural, communities of the state.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 156, which is aimed at helping bridge the gap of the digital divide in underserved households. The package is a $6 billion, multi-year investment, that will give more Californians access to broadband coverage with the construction of a state-owned open-access middle-mile network and a last-mile project that connects unserved households and businesses with local networks. Further, it will create the broadband czar, a position at the California Department of Technology, and a broadband advisory committee with representatives from across state government and members appointed by the Legislature.
Just a month ago, House Bill 360 was signed into law by Vermont Governor Phil Scott, which provided funding to a vast broadband deployment program for the state’s rural and underserved communities. This act establishes the Vermont Community Broadband Board which will oversee and manage the newly created Vermont Community Broadband Fund (VCBF). The VCBF will use the $150 million from the ARPA to expand broadband access across the state. In addition, H.360 establishes a preconstruction and construction grant program for broadband projects, as well as a property tax exemption that can be used by utilities that install new broadband lines. Finally, the bill creates a workforce development program to help establish and support the new workforce that is required to meet the state’s broadband investment.
Several other states like Kentucky, Indiana, and Montana have also taken steps to increase their state’s broadband networks. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear signed House Bill 320 on April 7th which allocates over $250 million toward expanding broadband throughout the state, “ensuring broadband access to thousands of underserved and unserved Kentuckians,” according to Rep. Brian Reed, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. According to the legislation, broadband services will be market-based and will allow electric cooperatives to access federal funding in their projects.
In Indiana, Governor Eric Holcomb signed House Bill 1449 on April 23rd, which is aimed at refining the process of awarding grants from the state’s rural broadband fund to projects that would provide Internet access to schools, rural health clinics and other underserved areas throughout the state.
Lawmakers in Montana considered House Bill 657, which would set up a rural broadband revolving loan account with up to $200 million deposited into the account from money received through the American Rescue Plan Act to provide broadband access to rural areas throughout the state, however, the bill currently remains in committee.
As Governors and state legislators across the U.S. move to expand their broadband networks, one thing is clear, communities across the country are struggling to have their needs met and broad infrastructure investments such as this are a step in the right direction. Much is left to be done to bring everyone into the technological world of the 21st century and to do so lawmakers must continue to invest wisely into those communities that need it the most. These are just a few of the many great initiatives that are being taken in states and we expect many more to come in the following months, especially as states look to spend their federal dollars. One thing is clear: these investments must happen and are necessary for our country’s success as we continue to lead, but to do so we must make crucial investments like broadband expansion, especially in communities that are currently being underserved.