As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the migration of public instruction and areas of commerce online, it has also highlighted the digital divide between those who do and don’t have reliable high-speed internet.
Currently, about 18.3 million Americans, many in rural areas, lack access to high-speed internet. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have access to broadband internet, including more than 552,000 who live in rural areas.
According to BroadbandNow, the Palmetto State ranks 31st in the nation in terms of broadband access. Having high-quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to remote and improved education, commerce, telework, telehealth, community resources and more.
Infusions of capital — such as the recent $155 million allocation from the FCC to expand broadband access in South Carolina over the next 10 years — will certainly help. Additionally, free internet hotspots and programs like Western Governors University’s Online Access Scholarships, which covers the cost of installing and accessing the internet, can benefit select families and students. However, a more extensive and coordinated effort is needed.
Recognizing the multiple benefits of connectivity, governors across the country are implementing a range of policies and solutions to expand access and increase affordability. The National Governors Association recently released a white paper titled “Governor Strategies to Expand Affordable Broadband Access” that recommends nine key strategies and best practices.
Establish robust, cross-cutting governance structures: Every state governs, creates, or communicates broadband policy through either a dedicated broadband office or designated staff within other agencies. South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff has been tasked with providing internet connections to needy residents during the pandemic.
Initiate partnerships with other state agencies, local and county governments, and other entities to kickstart broadband investments: Governors and state broadband leads can use grant programs and partnerships with state agencies, anchor institutions, the private sector, local government, educators, and community organizations to connect their states and leverage relationships, resources, and expertise to overcome obstacles.
Leverage anchor institutions to provide rapid community internet service: Historically, community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, medical facilities and government buildings, have served as critical connection points for last-mile fiber development to communities. South Carolina’s Department of Education has procured additional mobile hotspots, deployed hundreds of internet-equipped school buses to communities, and directed school districts to identify students who lack access, including providing internet access for 100,000 households under the federal poverty line.
Leverage existing infrastructure projects with dig-once coordination: States have cut broadband-infrastructure deployment costs by enhancing agency coordination and coordination with stakeholders in the planning, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure assets. This “dig-once” strategy takes advantage of existing construction or repair of roads or water pipes to simultaneously install conduit or run fiber at a lower cost.
Leverage electric utilities’ infrastructure and services to facilitate deployments of broadband networks: Governors can work with broadband service providers and utilities, including investor-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives, through public-private partnerships and grant programs to extend broadband coverage by using existing infrastructure backbones and rights-of-way, leasing capacity to other providers and reaching unserved rural-cooperative customer bases. Last September, South Carolina lawmakers passed legislation allowing electric co-ops to lease out space on existing power poles to broadband providers.
Coordinate and expand broadband affordability programs: Beyond monthly service rates, factors contributing to broadband internet affordability can also include contract length, activation or installation fees, and equipment costs. Many internet service providers have enacted new or improved low-cost service options for low-income households, those recently unemployed, or essential workers.
Deploy innovative procurement strategies: States are interested in shortening the purchasing process, building partnerships with suppliers, and keeping costs down. Strategies to streamline the procurement processes can include cooperative purchasing, umbrella contracts, and bulk purchasing agreements.
Improve broadband data and coverage maps: The collection of data on current broadband availability and service speeds is critical in prioritizing expansion efforts. This data is currently collected and mapped by the FCC, but the agency acknowledges that the data it collects twice per year is imperfect. To create a more accurate representation of the level of broadband service being provided, states have developed alternative mapping strategies that provide more granular data.
Identify funding and financing sources for broadband deployment: Many states have dedicated state funding mechanisms to address middle-mile and last-mile broadband expansion. These are often supplemented by federal programs that offer grants to states, municipalities, and other entities to accelerate broadband deployment. South Carolina has allocated $50 million of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to broadband expansion.
The key strategies and best practices put forth in the NGA’s white paper form a valid blueprint for expanding affordable broadband access. To read the full white paper, visit www.nga.org/center/publications/expand-affordable-broadband.
Kimberly Estep is the vice president, Southeast Region, for Western Governors University.