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States making headway in closing the rural-urban divide in access to high-speed broadband service

November 07, 2019
By: Colin Edwards

Access to reliable and fast internet service is a foundational element for the modern economy. Since the advent of broadband service its delivery has been highly divided between urban and rural areas. Many states are continuing to address this divide and took action in 2019. Several states repealed laws prohibiting local electric companies and co-ops from providing broadband services, other states initiated official planning efforts to expand internet services, and many approved and dispersed funding to develop broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

An element that may contribute to the divide and has been under dispute since its development is the broadband coverage map used by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Criticism has arisen from the ability of ISPs to overstate their true coverage areas as part of the FCC’s methods of mapping broadband data. As a result, some states have begun to develop their own coverage maps and hold ISPs accountable to local standards, and several states have challenged the FCC’s mapping standards in court. While not a fix-all, more granular and accurate federal mapping would help states and municipalities access the (proposed) $20 billion in FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and $600 million in USDA rural broadband grants, lessening the local tax burden and increasing the fairness for which federal grants are distributed.


In May, Gov. Kay Ivey signed both Senate Bill 90 and House Bill 400 to provide internet access to rural areas of Alabama. HB 400, The Broadband Using Electric Easements Accessibility Act, allows electric companies to install broadband on their new or existing easements, but does not allow the companies to require consumers to purchase broadband service as a condition for receiving electricity. Senate Bill 90, the Rural Broadband Access Initiative, expands the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund which was enacted in 2018. The expansion increases the threshold for which the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs can fund project administration from 3 to 7 percent of a project or $750,000 per fiscal year, whichever is less. It also increases individual grant limits from 25 to 35 percent of a project cost or $1.5 million (lesser of two) for projects in unserved areas.


In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state’s broadband plan with the goal of providing high-speed services to every community with more than 500 people by 2022. In August, Hutchinson announced a new $25 million state grant program called Arkansas Rural Connect. Only $5.7 million of the total funding was appropriated by the Legislature in 2019 with the remainder requiring approval in the 2020 legislative session. The grants will provide funding to towns where broadband service covers less than 50 percent of the population and that partner with cost-sharing ISPs to provide unencumbered high-speed service.


To help close remaining gaps in service, the state is implementing the third phase of its plan, “Expanding Rural Wireless Broadband.” In May, the state announced its partnership with private ISP, Bloosurf, to design, build, and operate the wireless network meant to close the final gap in coverage.


Lawmakers passed legislation that allows electric and telephone co-ops to begin providing broadband services. The state also unveiled its official blueprint for expanding broadband into rural and underserved areas. While no state funding is provided to encourage broadband expansion, lawmakers expect that the new plan will help private ISPs obtain federal funding.


In May, Gov. Brad Little signed an executive order to establish a 37-member Idaho Broadband Task Force charged with improving connectivity and broadband infrastructure throughout the state. The group’s first focus will be on mapping existing services and identifying gaps in the state’s current broadband infrastructure. This data will then be used to formulate a statewide plan for addressing connectivity issues.


In August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a $420 million investment in the state’s broadband expansion efforts. Connect Illinois, funded through capital investments by Rebuild Illinois, includes a $400 million broadband grant program to be administered through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and a $20 million capital upgrade program for the Illinois Century Network, the state’s broadband network serving public organizations such as K-12 and institutions of higher education. The governor also announced the members of the Broadband Advisory Council which was created in Public Act 100-833.


Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the approval of $22 million in funding for broadband expansion projects under Next Level Broadband program. The program is funded through the Indiana Finance Authority which amended its agreement with the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company to increase toll rates for heavy vehicles. The broadband expansion program can fund up to 80 percent of total eligible project costs up to $5 million if companies provide a 20 percent match.


Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Empower Rural Iowa Act that sets new standards for minimum broadband service speeds and definitions for rural target areas. The new minimum service speeds were updated to reflect widely recognized modern broadband speeds. The law also applies these new definitions to existing tax exemptions for companies expanding broadband services in rural areas. In addition to applying these new standards, the law also modifies the rules of the state’s existing broadband expansion grants program to leverage public-private-partnerships whenever possible.


Although the Legislature rejected a $163 million bond proposal from Gov. Janet Mills, of which $30 million was earmarked for the state’s broadband expansion efforts, they did approve the two-year budget which authorized an additional $1.9 million for the ConnectME Authority which administers broadband expansion programs. The budget moved a portion of the revenues already collected from a telephone service surcharge from supporting the state’s 911 system to ConnectME.


In August, Gov. Larry Hogan announced the first wave of funding availability as part of a five-year, $100 million plan to provide 225,000 rural residents with reliable broadband services. RFPs for the $9.9 million in broadband expansion pilot projects expected to be completed in 2020 are open until Jan. 7, 2020.


The Legislature appropriated $20 million in 2019 for use by the Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The grants can provide up to 50 percent of a project’s infrastructure costs up to a maximum of $5 million to expand broadband services in unserved and underserved areas. The state’s goal is to ensure that 100 percent of its residents have access to modern internet — defined as internet service that delivers speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds (25/3 Mbps)— by 2022, and to increase that statewide service up to 100 Mbps/20Mbps by 2026. Currently, 91 percent of Minnesota households and residents have access to the slower speeds.


In January, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act which allows electric co-ops to provide broadband services. While the act does not provide any state funding to expand broadband services, both federal agencies and local nonprofits are working with co-ops to educate them on federal funding opportunities, develop business plans and conduct feasibility studies.

North Carolina

In May, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the award of nearly $10 million in Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants to 14 ISPs and electric co-ops to expand broadband services to 9,800 households and more than 590 businesses, agricultural operations and community institutions across 19 rural and economically disadvantaged counties.


While originally written to raise $10 million annually through an increase in wireless call surcharges for use in expanding broadband projects in the state, Gov. Kate Brown signed a reworked version of HB 2173 to create the Oregon Broadband Office within the Oregon Business Development Department. The purpose of the organization is to conduct feasibility studies and facilitate broadband expansion projects in the state.

South Dakota

In May, Gov. Kristi Noem announced the award of $5 million in grants to complete several broadband expansion projects in the state. The grants were approved as part of the state’s 2019 budget bill. Eight projects, totaling $11.4 million when accounting for privately leveraged funding, are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019, and will expand broadband services to approximately 100 businesses and 4,800 residents.


In March, Gov. Bill Lee announced $14.8 million in grants to be disbursed by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to 13 ISPs. The funds are meant to provide broadband services to more than 8,300 rural households in 17 counties. The funding will be matched with $20 million by the grantees resulting in nearly $35 million in total project funding.


In July, Gov. Phil Scott signed H.513 which increased funding for the Connectivity Initiative to $10.8 million. The initiative is geared towards expanding broadband access to unserved and underserved areas across the state. The bill created the Broadband Innovation Grant Program which funds feasibility studies and recently issued its first round of funding. The bill also created the Broadband Expansion Loan Program, which expands the lending authority of the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), allowing it to act as the primary lender rather than working exclusively through banks to finance projects. These loans provide implementation capital to start-up broadband providers to develop community-based solutions. VEDA President and CEO Cassie Polhemus said the law doubles VEDA’s lending authority for a single project to $4 million for expanding or building new broadband networks.


Gov. Ralph Northam announced in April that the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative was disbursing $4.9 million in rural broadband grants to bring access to 15,000 households and 300 businesses in 12 counties. Local governments and private companies committed to providing an additional $9.2 million in matching funds, bringing the total investment to more than $14 million for 11 projects.

state tbed, broadband