During the coronavirus pandemic, as work and schooling have largely moved online, many communities across the Northeast are feeling left behind.
A decade after Congress directed the FCC to develop a plan to provide broadband internet to every American, towns in the Adirondacks and Berkshires, for example, say commerce and education lag because high-speed internet is hard to find.
Kathryn de Wit manages The Pew’s Charitable Trust's broadband research initiative.
How did you start studying the issue of broadband?
I work for the Pew Charitable Trust, which is a nonpartisan research organization that works to provide research and data to help policymakers at all levels of government navigate challenging questions. And as you just highlighted in your introduction, broadband is certainly one of those challenging questions. Pew kicked this work off about two years ago, and we examined state responses to the digital divide, because we recognize that there was a lot of analysis on how the federal government was responding. And a lot of it- a lot of analysis on how local governments were responding across the country. And we thought that it would be useful to examine how state's governments are responding to the digital divide. And folks, that's what we've been doing for the last two years.
Before we talk about what states are doing, could you define what we mean when we say “broadband”?
Sure. According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband is high-speed, reliable internet, at speeds of 25 megabits per second download. And three megabits per second upload. You can get broadband connection through wired and wireless connections, such as DSL, fiber, cable, and satellite.
OK, so just to put it into terms that the average person might understand. If you're streaming, let's say Netflix or HBO, that's going to require a broadband connection, right?
Yes. So, according to the FCC, having one person and a household streaming video needs 25/3. If they're just sending email, they can have one- or one of the services that's a little bit- or one of the speeds that's a little bit slower. However, as soon as you start adding more users in a household, more devices on a network, that is going to of course, mean that more users are trying to use the connection, so it's going to slow down your speed. So the FCC recommends that the more users you have, with the more devices that your speed should increase accordingly. I would also define too, that your speed the speed that you experience, it depends on a lot of factors. So first is the type of technology that you're using. So whether you're using a wireless or a wire- a wired connection, the age of the device that you're using to get online, the age of your router, the time of day. And then of course, like I said, the number of users and household.
So to extrapolate there, if many people are now staying at home, and let's say you have two kids doing an online school lesson, maybe a third kid streaming YouTube, and two parents on conference calls, that is going to severely tax a system, if that's the case in X number of households at a certain time of day.
Significantly. Yes, that's, that's absolutely correct. And that's why higher speeds are preferable when you have that many users in a household trying to access so many pieces of content like that at once.
OK, so let's talk about how broadband is set up in this country. You mentioned, you know, that you've studied the way different states are approaching the issue. Is it fair to say that we've got 50 different policies to providing broadband?
Um, well, no, I think we, we've actually seen that states are taking some common approaches to implementing policy to increase broadband access, or related to broadband access. Primarily, those fall into five categories. So those are: broadband programs, addressing competition and regulation, defining key terms related to broadband, addressing funding and financing, and regulating access to infrastructure.
So how are states doing, in general?
Well, we found that states are actually doing a lot. Nearly three quarters of states across the country have some type of active statewide broadband initiative and that can range from a taskforce or council that is assessing the problem and drafting a plan for the state to establish an active grant program, some of which have been around for over a decade.
Who is in charge of running these programs, state to state?
That's a great question, and it really does vary by state. So in some cases, it is- you have a governor's task force that's responsible for overseeing these initiatives and other cases, those- these efforts are housed within an agency. And those agencies can be offices of information technology, offices of economic development or community affairs, it's really up to the state and how they- and where they want to place that effort. And then within that agency, sometimes there is a specific office, you know, the state Broadband Office of x. Or in other cases, it's a state program. So it really does depend on the state for both who is responsible for overseeing broadband, and then where that initiative is located. I will flag that one of the most important things that we found from our research is that having that responsibility assigned to an office to, to a task force, having a point of contact, really to spearhead and own the issue is really crucial to making steps forward.
So are there states that are doing better than others?
Well, we don't rank states. But I will say that we found in our launch, or in our case study research, we examine and nine states across the country. So those states are- and I'm going in geographic order here: Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, and California. And these states all have different programs. But we found commonly that they're engaging in five activities. So those five activities are: engaging stakeholders, establishing a clear policy framework, supporting statewide and local planning, providing funding for deployment and operations. And then assessing impact, and using that to inform next steps. Really, these are just the good tenants of public policy, but what we found is that states are using a combination of those activities in order to set a goal for what the state wants to achieve. What does universal access look like in our state? Is it based on speed? Is it population, or is it technology type? And then they're setting that goal. They're engaging all different types of stakeholders, both the providers of internet, those who use it, the businesses and schools and healthcare systems that are affected by access. They're engaging all those folks to craft a plan and an approach, and then the state implements it and moves forward to close the divide.
This might be a little bit outside of your expertise. But we talk to members of Congress around the Northeast, and just by the way that these delegations are made up, they're mostly Democrats, who are saying the coronavirus pandemic is really pointing up the need for a sort of, you know, federal New Deal approach to an infrastructure program involving broadband. And they seem to be implying that, you know, doing this on a piecemeal, state-by-state basis, is just not the right way to go about it. And that's why we have such large gaps, where people don't have access to it. What's your reaction to that?
Well, I think that the- you know, states are different. And it sounds kind of cliché to say that, but it's true. And they're different for a lot of reasons. In some cases it's states policy. What's allowable in one state, isn't allowable in another. In other cases, it's geographies. So, you know, technology that we can deploy and Wyoming really may not be as useful in Maine. And there also is the element of which providers are available. So in some cases, you know, we're hearing a lot of discussion about rural, electric, co-ops right now. Co-ops, are one of several solutions to helping unserved and underserved communities get online. But if you don't have an established network of co-ops in your state, that's one less option that you have in order to move forward. So I think what's important is that, you know, states are setting a vision and in many cases, we're working very closely with federal partners within the Department of Commerce, USDA and the FCC in order to shape that vision. But, you know, what we hope moving forward is that as federal leaders, consider options to increase access to broadband that those policies complement and enhance the existing state efforts that are going on.
Let me ask you another hard question. How long does it take to get everybody online?
Ooh, Ian, that's tricky. So it depends on a couple of factors. And that includes the type of technology, the supply chain, both in terms of the equipment that you need to get folks online. It means also the availability of your workforce. But what we saw is that most state grant programs have a two year lifecycle. So from the time that, you know, the grant is awarded, they generally have about two years in order to make that network operational. So, that that is the- that's the average grant timeline that we're seeing across the country. But I think that it's important to note that broadband is physical infrastructure. So this isn't just a matter of like putting a wire in the ground, putting a wire on a pole. There are a lot of steps that it takes in order to get to that place of you know, putting that that wire in the ground or on a pole. And then there are a lot of steps after that. You know, there is no one policy, there's no one silver bullet that's going to solve this problem. It takes a series of actions and policies and engagements over the course of several years in order to make sure that you have sustainable networks that best serve the community at hand.
Last question, I mean, in your own life- in your own work and your personal life, has the pandemic changed the way you think about internet at all? And, you know, our reliance on it?
You know, I have worked in this field for seven, eight years now. And I think what- No, I I have the benefit of working in a very well-connected community. I live in Washington, DC, I have lived in neighborhoods, you know, my entire life where I have been well connected. I'm extremely privileged in that regard. I think what I have walked away from this experience, from COVID, is I think, maybe a more nuanced understanding of what the digital divide looks like across the country. And when we are talking about things like working remotely, and learning remotely, and accessing health care, you know, you know making sure that rural communities have the connections they need in order to thrive in today's economy. I think that the pandemic has really thrown into relive, just how much work still needs to be done in order to make- in order to make sure that folks have the access that they need, and that they also have the devices and skills to use it. Which, you know, it's really that's that's the full equation. It's not just the connection that's going to make sure that we're all prepared and ready for a digital economy. But, you know, it takes takes more than that.