In today's rapidly evolving economic landscape, access to high-speed internet is critical for small businesses and education opportunities. As part of the Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act (IIJA), passed in 2021, states are being provided billions of dollars by the federal government to help expand broadband.
For example, Idaho will have a big opportunity to expand broadband the right way with $583 million in federal funding. Neighboring states are also receiving substantial federal broadband funding with Washington state being allocated $1.2 billion, Montana $629 million, and Wyoming $348 million.
As policymakers utilize these federal funds, they should focus on best practices to ensure they are taking a free-market approach that expands broadband to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.
What is broadband specifically and how is it being used/implemented today?
Broadband expansion refers to efforts aimed at increasing the availability and accessibility of high-speed broadband internet services in areas where they are currently limited or unavailable. It involves extending the reach of broadband infrastructure to reach more communities, homes, and businesses.
Broadband expansion is critical for several reasons:
Digital accessibility: It ensures more people have access to the internet, bridging the digital divide. Without broadband access, individuals and communities can be left behind in terms of education, employment, healthcare, and civic engagement.
Economic development: Broadband expansion is seen as a driver of economic growth. It enables businesses to reach broader markets, facilitates remote work, and attracts investments in underserved regions.
Education: Access to broadband is crucial for remote learning and education choice options, especially living in a post-COVID-19 world. According to the Federal Communications Commission, "Nearly 17 million school children lack internet access at home.”
Healthcare: Telehealth and remote healthcare services rely on broadband access. Expanding broadband can improve healthcare access, especially in rural and remote areas.
Government services: Many government services and information are now provided online. Broadband expansion ensures citizens can access government services efficiently.
To help ensure a successful broadband expansion implementation, we encourage policymakers to follow these five steps (here is our full study on this topic).
Step one: Understand your market. Broadband, with its high-speed internet capabilities, has become an indispensable tool, weaving its way into the very fabric of our daily lives and operations. Engaging industry experts can provide invaluable insights into the latest advancements, challenges, and the promising future of broadband.
Step two: Find the right projects. State and local governments often rely on comprehensive broadband mapping. These maps, developed in collaboration with the FCC or independent organizations, provide detailed insights into areas lacking adequate broadband access. For instance, Idaho's Broadband Task Force has been instrumental in identifying underserved regions, guiding the state's efforts in bridging the digital divide.
Step three: Maximize investments. Traditional fiber optic networks, while effective, have been found to not always be the most cost-efficient solution for remote areas. Exploring alternative technologies, such as fixed wireless, satellite internet, or low-power wide-area networks, can offer more economical solutions for challenging terrains or low-density regions. Companies like SpaceX's Starlink are aiming to provide broadband access via low-Earth orbit satellites. This could be a game-changer for remote and underserved areas.
Step four: Don’t treat federal suggestions as mandatory. While federal guidelines are designed to ensure a uniform approach to broadband expansion, local legislators and implementers need to know they have the strategic autonomy to adapt these suggestions to the community's specific needs. A one-size-fits-all policy may not suit the diverse landscapes and demographic nuances of different regions. It is important to remember that federal guidance should serve as a starting point for collaboration rather than a checklist for compliance. For example, in response to a question about requiring a union workforce to expand broadband, Idaho told the federal government: “The IOB has opted not to require applicants to have a unionized workforce.”
Step five: Limit government overreach. Excessive and cumbersome regulations can act as deterrents, hindering private initiative and inflating project costs. By simplifying regulatory frameworks and ensuring transparent, competitive bidding processes, local governments can pave the way for efficient and equitable broadband projects. Such measures not only make it more attractive for private companies to participate but also guard against potential government favoritism, ensuring a level playing field. Collaborations with utility companies to utilize existing poles, conduits, or even public buildings can significantly reduce project costs. Governments should not attempt to create their own broadband utilities or institute price caps.
Policymakers now have a generational opportunity to expand high-speed internet in their states with federal broadband funds to help improve digital accessibility, economic development, education opportunities, healthcare access, and government services.
By focusing on these five steps: 1) understand the market, 2) pick the right projects, 3) maximize investments, 4) don’t treat federal suggestions as mandatory and, 5) limit government overreach, government officials will be able to ensure a successful and cost-effective broadband expansion implementation in their states.