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How State Broadband Offices Are Expanding Internet Access

Using a wealth of federal funding, states are devising their own ways to give residents high-speed connections.

By Heather Morton and Erin Louet  |  February 29, 2024

With rising demand for reliable, high-speed internet—and the availability of unprecedented federal funding for state, territorial and tribal governments—state policymakers are recognizing the value of having offices dedicated to overseeing their broadband programs.

Each state’s broadband program plays a crucial role in the implementation and deployment process. State programs are responsible for distributing not only BEAD funding, but also funding from various other programs, including the American Rescue Plan Act, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Digital Equity Act programs and state-level initiatives.

Related: What States Need to Know as Federal Broadband Program Expands

Over the past two years, state broadband offices have increased in staffing and capacity to manage the influx of federal funding. Today, every state has an active broadband program. Many states have hired directors to lead centralized offices and have added staff who specialize in digital equity, technical skills and collaborating with municipal and tribal governments.

While every state has designated an agency to administer BEAD, at least 35 states have created a broadband program authority structure through statute. A statewide broadband authority can:

  • Provide input on the development of a statewide broadband framework and plan.
  • Promote public and private sector participation.
  • Develop a broadband map to determine unserved and underserved areas.
  • Administer and assist with funding programs.
  • Assist with encouraging adoption, use and digital literacy.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, states with a dedicated broadband office can provide improved support for planning and competitive grant funding, and they are more likely to achieve their states’ goals.

The initial proposals, five-year action plans and digital equity plans from every state, commonwealth and territory can be viewed on the National Telecommunication and Information Administration website. Some of the action plans, such as those from Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Ohio and Utah, may provide a holistic vision or road map for the states. The digital equity plans, including those drafted by Louisiana, Maine, New York and Utah, can showcase how access and adoption vary across different populations, and identify strategies for building digital literacy.

On Dec. 15, 2023, Louisiana became the first state to receive NTIA approval of its initial proposal for the BEAD program. “The internet is the essential tool for communication in today’s world. Today, Louisiana is one step closer to delivering affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service to all,” NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson says.

Since 2021, state broadband offices have been essential in implementing federal dollars, collaborating with community partners to build infrastructure, and connecting areas in their states to the internet.

The Role of State Legislatures

The amount of federal funding available for broadband is unprecedented, but state legislatures still have a key role to play in achieving the goal of universal, high-speed internet access. Their role may include:

  • Ensuring accountability in the implementation of the state plan.
  • Appropriating additional, flexible dollars for broadband accessibility and expansion outside of the current federal funding.
  • Creating new, state-level programs.
  • Extending affordability and digital literacy programs when the federal funding ends.
  • Supporting and sustaining their broadband offices.

With a multitude of funding programs available, states are devising their own approaches to solve their unique broadband challenges, expanding access to high-speed internet for their residents and preparing for the connectivity needs of the future.

In the 2023 session, legislation included appropriations for broadband programs, the creation of advisory boards, improving regulatory processes to reduce permitting delays, and more. At least 48 states and Puerto Rico considered broadband bills, and at least 46 states enacted legislation.

Anticipating its NTIA funding, Arizona allocated $23 million to the Rural Broadband Accelerated Match Fund created by SB 1723 (2023). The funding is for counties with less than 1 million residents.

New Mexico SB 452 (2023) amended the state Department of Information Technology Act to allow the secretary and the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion to use the department’s established rates on a competitively neutral basis to provide internet service to connect the state’s underserved and unserved populations. The legislation requires the broadband office to follow an open process to identify unserved and underserved areas, while allowing for fair competition among private entities who agree to provide service in those areas. The bill also requires all facilities-based providers, except tribes and pueblos, to report semiannually to the broadband office in the same format as required by the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Kelly Schlegel, New Mexico’s broadband director, “In the several months since my appointment, it’s become imminently clear that the key to making universal broadband a reality in New Mexico is breaking down some of the systemic barriers that exist in the form of complicated rights of way processes, cumbersome, multilayered grants procedures, and limitations on the state’s ability to procure services for critical infrastructure projects.”

In Texas, Rep. Trent Ashby sponsored HB 9 (2023) to create the Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund to expand and ensure access to reliable, high-speed broadband and telecommunications connectivity. The fund may be used to support the Texas Broadband Pole Replacement Program and to provide matching funds for federal money from the BEAD program (Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment).

“As rural Texans know all too well, access to broadband internet is a challenge in many rural communities. House Bill 9 provides for a strategic investment to incentivize broadband providers to help bridge the digital divide,” Ashby says. “As we navigate further into the digital era, the urgency for every citizen to be able to access digital learning, telehealth, work remotely, apply for jobs, market their businesses, and so much more, is vital to our region.”

In Colorado, the goal of SB 183 (2023) was to remove barriers to broadband expansion and allow the state to best utilize federal funding. The legislation repealed provisions prohibiting local governments from providing broadband service. “SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” says Brandy Reitter, executive director of Colorado’s broadband office. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”

In Wisconsin, SB 325 (2023) improved the expansion of rural broadband. “This bill further refines the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program to make sure it is focused on unserved communities as we also manage a deluge of federal funding into the broadband expansion world,” says Sen. Howard Marklein, who sponsored the bill.

Maine LD 1456 (2023) directed its public utilities commission, in consultation with the state connectivity authority, to study current pole attachment laws and rules and the effects of those requirements on broadband expansion through public or private networks, or public-private partnerships. The study must examine the average time involved for each stage of pole make-ready work, including the time for joint-use pole owners to approve new attachments for tax-exempt municipalities and private companies, and ways to decrease or standardize wait times for attachments. It must also assess the effectiveness of the commission’s enforcement practices for timely relocation or removal of utility poles that are functionally obsolete, that are in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or that obstruct current or future municipal infrastructure.

For additional legislative information, see NCSL’s Broadband Legislation Database.

As legislatures return to session in 2024, lawmakers are looking for ways to seize new opportunities for collaboration with federal entities, broadband offices and local governments to provide reliable, high-speed internet for all.

Heather Morton is the director of NCSL’s Financial Services, Technology and Communications Program; Erin Louet was a policy analyst in the program.

Additional Broadband Funding Programs

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, provides $65 billion in broadband funding through 10 programs. The programs are administered by various federal agencies, including the NTIA, FCC, Department of the Treasury and the Department of Agriculture.

Affordable Connectivity Program: Aims to help families who cannot afford high-speed internet service with $14.2 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law. It provides a discount of up to $30 a month for internet service, and a one-time discount to buy a device such as a laptop or tablet. The program, which is administered by the FCC, is closed to new enrollments and is estimated to run out of funding by April 2024 without congressional action.

Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program: A $3 billion program for broadband deployment, telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability and digital inclusion. A second round of funding will make another $980 million available.

Capital Projects Fund: A separate fund created under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, with $10 billion for “critical capital projects that directly enable work, education and health monitoring, in response to the public health emergency,” according to the Department of the Treasury, which administers the program. Eligible recipients include states, Washington, D.C., territories, the state of Hawaii (for Native Hawaiian programs), and tribal governments.

Visit the NTIA’s Internet for All page for a full list of programs and additional information regarding eligibility.

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