In 2022, over one in five rural Americans do not have a broadband internet connection at home, and access to high-speed internet is a major problem for 24 percent of rural adults. The rate of connectivity in Indian Country also lags behind the rest of the country. As of December 2018, only 60 percent of tribal lands in the lower 48 states had high-speed internet access. Increasing access to reliable and fast broadband internet creates a positive ripple effect for rural communities, providing better opportunities for sustainable remote education and work and allowing families to build a better life.
Broadband Reliability and Access
State legislatures have taken steps to address the broadband gap by developing ambitious and measurable goals, centralized planning processes, and multistakeholder coordination to build community-level capacity to plan broadband projects. All 50 states have created an organizing body or authority to plan and deploy broadband expansion projects. As states develop their plans, they should not rely solely on data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as the agency significantly overcounts broadband access.
The most economical choice to ensure adequate bandwidth for the long term is investment in bringing fiber-optic cable directly to homes and small businesses. States can also implement “dig once” policies to link transportation and telecom projects, and invest in “last mile” infrastructure.
Some states have taken steps to expand broadband development beyond the telecom industry through municipal broadband. Allowing players such as municipalities, muni electrics, and electric co-ops to deploy and own broadband infrastructure will expand service options. However, this expansion has long been subject to preemption laws: as many as 20 states have had laws complicating or banning municipally owned broadband networks. Currently, 17 states have such laws. Another area to be aware of is ensuring projects are not delayed by pole owners who may be resistant to new competition.
Federal: Pass the Rural Internet Improvement Act. This bill would streamline and bolster USDA Rural Development broadband programs and ensure their funding is targeted to rural areas that need it the most. The bill would merge and codify the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program — a program designed to target rural communities with no connectivity — with USDA’s traditional broadband loan and grant program. It would limit funding to areas where 90 percent or more of households don’t have consistent broadband access.
President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill includes $65 Billion to ensure that every household in America is connected to high-speed internet. These funds are added to unprecedented state and local government resources from the American Rescue Plan to support connectivity for school children, healthcare, and other institutions.
State: Study who has access to broadband, including available speeds and at what costs.
State: Incentivize broadband infrastructure through “dig once” policies and financing “last-mile” construction.
- State: Remove preemptions to municipal broadband, allowing rural communities greater control in meeting their rural broadband infrastructure needs.
Minnesota (2016 MN HF 2749) developed specific goals for broadband internet access with download and upload speed targets. And with the worst access to broadband, West Virginia (2017 WV HB 3093) has taken steps to address that by creating a broadband enhancement council to gather data and explore ways to expand broadband access, which has led to the recent development of a billion-dollar broadband strategy.
Legislation enacted in Nevada (2017 NV SB 53) requires the state’s Department of Transportation to coordinate with telecom providers.
Minnesota (2014 MN HF 3172) created a “border-to-border broadband development” grant program and seeded it with $20 million to fund middle-mile and last-mile broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state. State lawmakers passed another bill (2016 MN HF 2749) to appropriate another $35 million to the program, with a $500,000 carveout to fund projects in low-income communities. California (2021 CA SB 156) enacted legislation that sets the structure and framework for the construction of $3.25 billion in state-owned, open-access, middle-mile broadband infrastructure in rural and urban areas of the state to maximize reductions in the number of households unserved by broadband internet services.
Tennessee (2017 TN SB 1215) authorized electric cooperatives to provide broadband internet services.
Arkansas (2019 AR SB 150) passed legislation to authorize local governments, in partnership with private entities, to deploy municipal broadband to unserved areas. State legislators in Arkansas (2021 AR SB 74) later enacted a bill to more broadly authorize municipal broadband. Enacted legislation in Washington (2021 WA HB 1336) recently expanded municipal broadband powers beyond first-class cities to second-class cities, towns, counties, and public utility districts. Introduced legislation in Michigan (2021 MI HB 5037) would add “construction, improvement, and maintenance of communications infrastructure, including broadband and high-speed internet” to the list of local improvement projects that a township board can fund through a bond issuance and a special property tax assessment.
The Arizona (2019 AZ SB 1548) legislature appropriated $3 million to create the Rural Broadband Development Grant, which supports the planning and deployment of broadband and is available to rural governments, federally recognized tribes located in Arizona, economic development nonprofits, and for-profits with at least a five-year history in telecommunications.
In 2015, Maine (2015 ME LD 1185) created the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund, a nonlapsing, revolving fund to provide grants to communities, regional partnerships, and municipalities to support broadband development through public-private partnerships. This Maine law was most recently amended (2021 ME LD 1432) to include groups of municipalities as applicants and to allow construction or expansion of open-access broadband networks as an eligible use of the grant funds.