States moving toward greater broadband access

The latest broadband performance index of all 50 states released by TechNet shows that all states are moving forward on increasing broadband access. However, like with other national initiatives, some states are moving a little faster than others. As part of the stimulus package following the 2008 crisis, many states were awarded grants to increase broadband access based on the merits of their expansion plans. Others, like Kansas have been the lucky recipients of private sector projects like Google Fiber. Cities like Chattanooga, were arguably the first movers in taking on ultra high speed access at the citywide level. Taken together, these factors show a growing public sector realization that broadband is public utility and necessary to core economic and public safety functions.

Much of the broadband funding offered through the stimulus was designed to increase access through “anchor institutions.” These institutions are public schools, universities, hospitals, public offices and law enforcement. This type of expansion effectively set up a tiered priority system designed to bring critical infrastructure online first, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for private home and business access. For most states and cities with broadband expansion plans, phase II build outs include middle, and sometimes last mile fiber to bring businesses and individuals online.

For the states with active build outs, the report shows that Phase I, or the anchor institutions phase, is going well and isn’t necessarily concentrated to high population areas. Washington, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and California top the progress index, but less densely populated states like Utah and New Hampshire still clear the top 15.

TechNet last released this index in 2003, at that time, 15% of homes had a broadband subscription. That number has increased to 68% today. While considerably higher, it still shows vast room for improvement, relative to other countries around the world where broadband penetration is over 80%. CivSource has argued that broadband should be considered a human right, as it is in other countries, given its impact on all aspects of life now from eduction to economic opportunity – a feeling that is supported by organizations like the United Nations. However, as with most advances in the US, it appears that the path to access is going to come at a higher cost, and with a long arduous fight.

Despite federal support, the US does have several challenges to access – many of which are detailed in the report including: a diverse geography; disparate rural populations; inconsistent state level support and funding, and a private sector that is moving away from capital expenditure on broadband. In the report, authors offer case studies of states that are overachievers in terms of providing access. Across the board these states have had top down support from their Governors, and passed legislative mandates to provide access even when the private sector bowed out.

Legislative backing has been critical internationally to ensure the timely and affordable build out of this service. In our interview with Suvi Linden, she noted that during her own work in the Finnish government, policy mandates where the only way to overcome private sector hurdles. According to Linden, “there is no other reality than having quality telecommunications infrastructure all over. It is a requirement for people and the economy in the 21st century. Access must be completed sooner rather than later. If providers aren’t going to build the infrastructure on their own, legislation must become part of the picture in order to save time and ensure competitiveness and sustainability of the economy. In fact, one megabit access is really only a baseline – we have to keep moving forward.”

In California, the home of silicon valley, observers might think technology infrastructure was baked into the cake. The TechNet report shows that two policy measures where key components to making this state an overachiever – In 2008, based on the recommendations of a state task force studying broadband access, California Senator Alex Padilla was successful in winning the enactment of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to fund broadband network construction in unserved and underserved areas. The initial funding was $100 million, and in 2011, the Senator was successful in having Governor Brown sign legislation that increased that funding to $225 million through 2018. The CASF is funded by a small tax on voice and VoIP services in the state.

California also passed two other bills, that the report notes were critical – SB 1437 which established the California Virtual Campus and allowed community colleges to qualify for broadband funding, and SB 1191 which authorized community service districts to provide broadband access where private sector providers would not. As we have noted, there are many efforts underway by the private sector to stop bills like SB 1191 from being passed nationwide.

The report notes similar top down efforts in Ohio, and Massachusetts. Cities with active mayors like Chicago, New York, and San Jose are also getting in on the act with their own municipal initiatives. While states and cities look at a variety of ways to improve access, the authors of the report note that the reality is clear – “although tight state budgets make new expenditures difficult to incur, states who find the resources lay the groundwork for future social and economic growth.”