While federal funding has been imperative for fiber networks—especially in rural areas—many states are also taking their connected future one-step further. In the past two decades, there’s been an emergence of states starting their own broadband offices and initiatives. For some, the fruits of their labor were highlighted during COVID-19.
On this week’s Fiber for Breakfast, two state officials from Colorado and Tennessee, respectively, discussed how important state funding and policy has been to implementing broadband. Teresa Ferguson, director of federal broadband engagement in Colorado; and Crystal Ivey, broadband director, community and rural development in Tennessee, both said coupling state-run efforts to expand internet access with federal funding and policy has been pivotal in building networks.
“States are having a huge impact in this space,” Ivey said. “Thirty-something states have grant programs, they all have broadband offices and they’ve all acknowledged this is an issue.”
While individual states vary on how robust their broadband offices are, both Ivey and Ferguson said they exist in some capacity. Usually they act as a source of funding. In Tennessee, the broadband office has provided $44.3 million grants in the past two years, serving 65,750 residents in the state. In Colorado, it has provided more than $50 million in funds that go to both middle mile and last mile fiber projects.
Both have varying criteria for these grants: They require some sort of investment from the entity requesting the funds, and typically, these networks are built out in underserved areas.
There are also resources for local entities—be it a municipality, an electric co-op or a privately-owned company—to determine what services their area needs regarding broadband. In light of COVID-19, Ferguson said her office launched a survey asking people to share their internet experiences while working and learning from home. The goal is to take that data and use it to guide not only funding, but policy within the state of Colorado as well.
“We recognize we’re living through a moment,” she said. “So we knew it was important to capture these experiences. We believe the stories we collect from this project will prove invaluable to guiding our broadband policies.”
Both said having reliable internet in some of the states’ most rural areas was essential during COVID-19. While its impact has yet to be truly measured, Ferguson said many rural Coloradans had access to the internet during this time thanks to the efforts of the state.
“I think everyone woke up,” she said. “Tele-education, telework, telemedicine—it’s imperative we have broadband. As we’re looking post-COVID, people are going to demand to telework. We need to prepare ourselves for what that is going to look like. I think we really need to look at our paradigm.”
While it’s important for states to have this top-of-mind internally, Ivey said it’s equally important they continue to work with federal regulators on funding and policy. One way they do that is ensuring state grants are not going to areas serviced under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
They also have a close relationship with the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture so they can be as collaborative as possible.
“We all just want everyone to have broadband in Tennessee, so we’re all willing to work to do that,” Ivey said. “We don’t want to get in their way; they don’t want to get in our way, so we’re really focused on collaboration.”
That partnership is key, Ferguson said, especially when it comes to advocating for more funding. While states have limited funds—Tennessee’s broadband programs are funded out of the general fund, whereas Colorado’s comes from the state’s Universal Service High-Cost Support Mechanism (HCSM)—federal entities have a stronger cash flow.
Robust state broadband programs can strategically advocate for state and federal funding while building out areas that remain unserved despite things like RDOF.
“Quite frankly, states do not have the money to do all of this,” Ferguson said. “We need that funding while chipping away at the gaps, and we are doing the best to supplement those locations that still remain chronically unserved. State offices do a great job of working to identify areas where improvements are needed.”
Ivey said anyone looking to build out fiber in their local communities should reach out to their state’s broadband office to learn about opportunities there. While many first think of federal funding as an answer, states are taking connectivity just as seriously.
“States are huge resources now when it comes to broadband grant funding,” she said. “If you’re in a state that has grant funding, go to Broadband USA and see what your state is doing and how you can get involved.”
Join us for next week's Fiber for Breakfast live video series. The topic: Fiber and the Smart City.