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While states and localities still have a long way to go toward getting everyone access to high-speed Internet, efforts at all levels of government, and especially federal funding, promise positive progress.
If 2020 convinced the country that broadband for all Americans is essential, then 2021 underscored a reality of life: Goals often require longer timelines than we’d prefer. To put it another way, a worldwide emergency helped the U.S. recognize the importance of having ubiquitous high-speed Internet, and now we’re playing catch-up. There’s no quick and clean fix, which is a clunky pill to swallow for millions of people who contend with substandard or nonexistent connectivity as a new world of hybrid education, remote work, online services and telehealth takes over.
The urgency for wider access to high-speed Internet has been palpable this year. The federal government has ramped up its focus on the issue. Like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the American Rescue Plan Act allows states and local areas to use federal relief funding on connectivity projects. Further, the infrastructure bill that passed in November includes $65 billion for broadband. In turn, states are setting aside eye-popping amounts of money, with California putting forth a $6 billion plan, Virginia committing $700 million and Missouri investing $400 million, to name a few.
But is all that money enough to help everyone? The short answer appears to be no, according to various experts. While the unprecedented funding will lead to more widespread broadband infrastructure, cost remains a significant burden for everyday Americans, and government stipends for monthly Internet bills could decrease in value. Perhaps Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, put it best: “If the states spend it [federal money] responsibly, it should largely resolve the challenge of people not having a network at their home. As far as the term ‘digital divide’ is concerned, we will still have tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford it.”
Moreover, as Government Technology contributor Kipp Bentley suggested in an article titled “Is Broadband for All Really Possible?”, the money must also come with greater emphasis on higher download and upload speeds and improved accountability measures.
There is hope. At the federal level is an interesting potential shift in responsibility. In the past 20 years, the Federal Communications Commission has handled the lion’s share of federal dollars for high-speed Internet. But after years of criticism from state and local stakeholders about the FCC’s failure to create fair and accurate coverage maps and to keep up with the ever-growing demand for higher speeds and lower latency, Congress wants the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to manage $42 billion in broadband infrastructure funds. The idea is to leverage NTIA’s existing relationships with states so that citizens can get a better deal than they have received with many subsidized projects of the past.
More than ever, state and local governments grasp the significance of community engagement and agency coordination when it comes to overcoming the problem of inadequate broadband access. Public and private organizations are putting their best minds together to figure out how money can be well spent. Fresh ideas like electric cooperative networks, multi-town partnerships and open-access fiber are starting to take off to help populations that have been overlooked.
The United States might have been a little late to the game, but 2021 has seemingly revealed a collective epiphany that every dollar, and every decision, must count in broadband.