Inadequate minimum broadband speeds and affordability issues make it hard to close the digital divide, state broadband experts say.
Infrastructure and affordability emerged as the main challenges that states face in expanding and improving broadband during a June 23 panel discussion hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
For starters, the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum speed requirements are in need of an update, panelists said.
“As long as we continue to use a backward-looking metric of 25 megabits down and 3 megabits up as the definition of broadband, then our federal agencies are going to continue to put us in this bowling alley lane of where we can put investment and build infrastructure. That’s a problem,” said Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement at the Colorado Broadband Office.
West Virginia State Sen. Robert Plymale said that the pandemic made it obvious that the standard speed “wasn’t even high enough to do anything. We found that we were so woefully underserved that I can’t find an area of West Virginia that is properly served.”
Four U.S. senators agreed, stating in a March 4 letter to the leaders of the Agriculture and Commerce departments, FCC and the National Economic Council that “our goal for new deployment should be symmetrical speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), allowing for limited variation when dictated by geography, topography, or unreasonable cost.”
Another part of the problem is affordability, Plymale said, because even where access is available, residents can’t afford it.
Ferguson said the cost problem plagues Colorado, too, which also has large swaths of rural residents. She said federal help is crucial: “The states can’t print enough money to be able to fix this infrastructure problem ourselves. We can’t even fix, in some ways, the affordability issue because it’s too large.”
Tamarah Holmes, director of the Office of Broadband at Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said there’s been a disconnect between federal and state governments.
“We’re three times more efficient than the federal programs in terms of our investments and the number of folks we get connected,” Holmes said. A main reason why is because the federal agencies work in silos, she added.
For example, Holmes said, FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund awarded funding to areas Virginia was already investing in. As a result, the state is now working to figure out how providers that provisionally won the rights to provide service to locations through the RDOF auction can legally forfeit those awards without penalty. RDOF will provide about $20 billion over 10 years to support broadband in rural areas.
“The state of West Virginia may be eligible for over $2 billion in broadband funding between what the state legislature is doing, between what FCC is doing, between what [the National Telecommunications and Information Administration] is doing, Appalachian Regional Commission, so on and so forth,” Linville said. “If $2 billion can’t solve this problem, we’ve got a problem, and the problem isn’t just the money.”
Another concern is the fact that many municipalities have only one broadband provider. As a result, residents must use what that single company offers. Absent competition, providers have no incentive to invest in better or faster infrastructure.
“How can we put forward policies and proposals and projects which ultimately result in competition in this space -- because Americans and West Virginians like to be able to choose who we want to do business with,” Linville said.
Neighboring Virginia has invested $140 million in broadband through a variety of resources, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam and General Assembly leaders put broadband at the top of their list of five ways to invest funding from the American Rescue Plan.
Despite the disconnect between state and federal governments, the experts agree that they need one another. Linville said he’d like to see changes to how feds structure funding by mandating the outcome, rather than how distribution happens.
Likewise, Virginia’s Holmes would like to see greater use of block grants, which give local governments more control over how they use the money than categorical grants.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all with addressing the digital divide,” she said. “Each state has different issues, and so we’d like the funding [in general] to be block granted to us so that we have the flexibility to address our issues of our digital divide.”