One of the biggest challenges brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic is the dire need to close the nation’s longstanding digital divide. To that end, a growing number of state and local governments are pursuing plans to use billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief on broadband expansion.

In July, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation (SB 156) that allocates $6 billion to a multi-year effort to build out the state’s middle- and last-mile broadband infrastructure. The plan includes the addition of a broadband czar position at the California Department of Technology, the creation of a state broadband advisory committee and $750 million for local governments and nonprofits to secure financing for broadband infrastructure.

In a statement, Newsom said the Golden State is “committed to addressing the challenges laid bare by the pandemic, including the digital divide holding back too many communities in a state renowned for its pioneering technology and innovation economy.”

The signing came just days after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced the Old Dominion would use $700 million of its $4.3 billion in federal relief funds on broadband expansion. The governor said the additional money will shave four years off the state’s current plan to achieve universal broadband access by 2028.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us the importance of universal broadband in our great commonwealth. Whether it be for virtual learning, or whether it be for telehealth or business opportunities, or just quality of life, it is very, very important that we have universal broadband in Virginia,” Northam said in announcing the plan.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, both Republicans, have also made multimillion dollar broadband funding commitments as well, with Reynolds signing a bill (HF 867) in May allocating $100 million to the state’s broadband grant program and Hogan in July signing off on almost $30 million in grant funding for the Old Line State.

And just last week, the U.S. Senate agreed to take up formal debate on U.S. HR 3684, a massive $1 trillion infrastructure funding plan that includes $65 billion more to support broadband deployment and adoption. That total is both much more than Congress has previously allocated specifically to broadband and substantially less than the $100 billion President Joe Biden was seeking.

If the measure becomes law in its current form – which is highly speculative at best – at least $42 billion of that would likely be sent to states in the form of block grants. Another $14 billion would go toward making permanent an emergency fund previously created to provide subsidies to help low-income residents pay for Internet services.

The Power of the Pandemic

Former California Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D), now a technology and telecommunications executive with T-Mobile, has spent much of his career working on issues around the digital divide. Given the hardships caused by the massive turn toward remote work, school and health care caused by the pandemic, he says he’s not surprised that governments at all levels are now throwing maximum energy to close that gap. 

“The pandemic did what 10-15 years of effort in this arena couldn’t do – to get people to understand the depth, breadth and significance of the digital divide,” he says.

For years, the term “digital divide” was generally accepted as the gap between those with physical access to information and communication technology (ICT) and those without. But these days the view is much broader, including not only access but the affordability of such services and the technological literacy or proficiency of users.

Given that, Levine notes the significance of the Senate bill’s focus beyond just taking on greater access in rural areas.

“The lack of access in rural areas is only part of the problem,” he says. “Many people without the Internet live in areas where access isn’t the problem. The issue is being able to afford it. If all the money is spent just on rural access, they will accelerate that specific solution but they won’t solve the overall problem.”

A Surge of Federal Broadband Dollars

Much of the money already being put into the pipeline comes from two major federal pandemic relief measures: the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which set aside $150 billion for state, local and tribal governments, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which allocated another $350 billion. Each of those measures provided the freedom to spend the cash on projects like broadband expansion.

States definitely have taken advantage of that option.

Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina all created broadband deployment grant programs. Many others used the influx of money to bolster programs or funds already in place.

“A number of states made fairly substantial allocations of their Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars toward existing broadband programs,” says Anna Read, Senior Officer for the Pew Broadband Research Initiative. “Arkansas, for example, put $100 million of their money toward broadband. North Carolina added $39 million dollars to its grant program. Tennessee put $60 million.”  

Perhaps most notable, ARPA also grants state and local governments wide latitude to set their own priorities in funding broadband projects, a significant departure from the usual mandates for how federal funds are utilized. It also allows funds to be allocated toward “communities,” as defined by states themselves instead of the usual census blocks based on Federal Communications Commission data.

The measure further sets a new speed standard, requiring service that reliably “meets or exceeds symmetrical upload and download” speeds of 100 Mbps unless doing so would be impractical for the location.

Earlier this year, Congress previously approved yet another funding stream, the Broadband Infrastructure Program, which authorizes the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to oversee $288 million in grants available to fund partnerships between states and service providers.

While the pandemic certainly showcased the need for greater broadband access, states were hardly ignoring the issue beforehand.

State Broadband Actions Plentiful

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 43 state legislatures considered broadband legislation in 2020 covering “educational institutions and schools, dig once, funding, governance authorities and commissions, infrastructure, municipal-run broadband networks, rural and underserved communities, smart communities and taxes.” At least 34 of those enacted at least one bill or resolution.

This year has been just as active, with 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all weighing broadband bills and at least 28 having enacted a measure or resolution.

Dozens of governors made broadband expansion a priority as well. According to the National Governors Association, nearly 40 governors listed greater broadband investment as an agenda priority in their 2021 State of the State addresses.

And Pew Research notes that 40 states now have established a dedicated broadband deployment fund to help support expansion efforts, and all but three – Kentucky, New Hampshire and Mississippi – have created a state broadband agency. Thirty-three have created a state task force to tackle broadband issues.

Pew’s Read notes the importance of the freedom states have been given by the previous Congressional measures to use the funds as they see fit.

“States have varying demographic characteristic - aging populations, population loss in rural areas, very difficult geographic challenges – so that flexibility has the potential to allow them to better address those specific challenges,” she says.

Although the Senate bill has so far received generally bipartisan support, it has a long way to go. As of last Wednesday, almost 300 proposed amendments to the 2,702 page bill were in the works. The Senate goes into recess on Monday August 9, so a final resolution is expected by shortly after this story goes to press. Should it gain approval there, it will head to the House, where its chances remain unclear.



Most States Considering Broadband Legislation This Year

As of July 21, 46 states had considered bills or resolutions in their 2021 legislative sessions dealing with broadband issues, including rural and underserved communities, funding, dig once, governance, schools, smart communities and taxes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 28 of those states had enacted such legislation.