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Broadband for all: Harnessing the collective power of the public sector

May 2, 2023 Article 7 min read
Kyle Macyda Stacey Mansker-Young
Millions of Americans lack access to reliable, affordable internet service. Learn how public entities are using creative solutions to close the digital divide and connect their communities to the work, education, and healthcare opportunities everyone deserves.
Young professional woman working in coffee shop using broadband internet accessFrom city council meetings to the halls of the United Nations, there’s growing demand to recognize internet access as a basic human right that enables access to education, employment, and healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic drove home just how deep the digital divide runs. When businesses and schools shut down, fast and reliable internet access suddenly became the only way that work and learning could continue for tens of millions of people. Yet broadband isn’t a utility, and therefore financial benefit is the key incentive for unregulated internet providers to invest in infrastructure. The result? Public entities and municipalities stepped into the fray with creative solutions. Local governments connected millions by redeploying busses as mobile hotspots, laying fiber on existing train tracks, and cobbling together funding and solutions from unlikely partnerships.

Now, in COVID-19’s aftermath, communities are demanding long-term solutions to the broadband dilemma. Local leaders face rising pressure from constituents to do something — anything — to show that they’re addressing the problem. Even as new federal funding ramps up, public sector entities are struggling to turn rhetoric into reality and close the digital divide in their own backyards.

It’s a complex challenge with no single solution. Yet in our work with public sector clients, we’ve identified best practices that can drive meaningful progress. We’ve also seen that intradepartmental collaboration and community engagement are vital at every step of the journey.

Define the digital gaps in your community

This first step can be daunting, but it can’t be skipped: you won’t get new broadband funding if decision-makers believe your communities already have adequate access, and you can’t fix underlying barriers until you identify them. Why is it so difficult to pin down who has internet access and who doesn’t? For starters, there is no single entity responsible for collecting comprehensive data on broadband availability in the United States. The data that is publicly available is a patchwork of unverified statistics pulled from different sources. Service providers can easily overstate their coverage area or download speeds for marketing purposes, while residents might underestimate the quality of service because their definition of “high-speed” differs from the provider’s.

There is no single entity responsible for collecting comprehensive data on broadband availability in the United States.

Pinning down the facts in local communities often requires a hands-on, grassroots approach. In Chicago, college interns have gone door-to-door asking residents about their experiences with internet access and speed. Other communities have reached parents by sending paper-based questionnaires home with K-12 students. Makeshift methods like these can be time-intensive and don’t deliver pinpoint accuracy — yet this granular data collection can unearth trouble spots that have been misreported and will help you assess whether they’re one-offs or symptoms of a larger gap.

It's worth noting that different communities also face different challenges. Rural settings might lack broadband access because investing in low-population areas doesn’t deliver a compelling ROI for internet providers. Large urban communities that have adequate infrastructure often have low-income areas where residents can’t afford to access the internet or aren’t aware of the available subsidies. Sovereign tribal land presents unique challenges as well; while recent federal grants provide more than $1.3 billion in funding to tribal entities, their geographic location and distance between households can pose logistical challenges.

As the public sector steps up efforts to close the digital divide, it will need to account for these differences across state, county, city, township, and territory levels to devise solutions tailored to constituents’ needs.

Get collaborative — and creative — to fund your infrastructure

Public sector budgets can be tight, so we suggest starting with an audit of the assets and funding you already have — and then exploring how you can tap into new partnerships to fill the gaps. Here are five   ways to pursue support for your broadband infrastructure goals:

  • Take a fresh look at your own resources. CFOs have visibility across departmental funds and can play a pivotal role in orchestrating intradepartmental cooperation and collaboration. For example, during the pandemic, Chicago cobbled together funding streams to wire the city by borrowing from city hall’s transportation and education budgets.
  • Think beyond your borders. If your community is struggling with broadband access, there’s a chance your neighbors might be, too. Villages, cities, townships, school districts, colleges, and incorporations can band together to create economies of scale at the county level, rather than taking a whack-a-mole approach on their own. State-level strategies are also likely to become more collaborative as federal law calls for states to produce digital equity plans that enhance internet usage and connect those who need it most.
  • Leverage nonprofit co-ops and consortiums. Utility co-ops are already serving the needs of rural communities and have infrastructure in place to deliver electricity to homes, farms, and businesses. Building upon this infrastructure for broadband can reduce the cost and time required to deploy affordable internet options in remote communities. Higher-ed consortiums can also prove to be valuable partners. For example, the nonprofit Merit Network operates more than 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cable connecting universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, libraries, and other nonprofit organizations throughout Michigan, and is now working with Michigan State University to upgrade the equipment in its fiber-optic network.
  • Use a partner to navigate grants. Public sector leaders already know that securing grant funding is an art and science all its own. The same holds true for broadband infrastructure efforts, which can be funded through a labyrinth of sources at the city, state, county, and federal levels. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) BroadbandUSA website is a good general starting point. The site lists current federal programs, a downloadable funding guide, and interactive maps that drill down to state-specific opportunities. For rural broadband efforts, the USDA’s website provides a more targeted list of funding opportunities and consortiums. We often recommend working with an experienced partner who can help you navigate funding options that match your specific needs.
  • Ask ISPs to contribute to your broadband goals. Some areas have had success coordinating across policymakers, business leaders, and nonprofits to convince internet service providers (ISPs) to pay a portion of broadband expansion costs and/or lay new fiber to connect underserved communities. For example, Comcast participates in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides eligible households with a subsidy that covers the cost of “essential” internet service; across the country, the company has installed more than 1,250 “Lift Zones,” offering free high-speed Wi-Fi inside community centers.

Public sector budgets can be tight, so we suggest starting with an audit of the assets and funding you already have.

Engage the community at every step of the journey

If your constituents aren’t already demanding more equitable broadband access, it’s probably just a matter of time. But community involvement doesn’t end with bringing the problem to your local meetings. Aldermen, City Council members, and local representatives play a critical role in creating and maintaining a dialogue throughout the broadband journey.

If your constituents aren’t already demanding more equitable broadband access, it’s probably just a matter of time.

Engaging the community is key to defining and gaining support for your broadband expansion efforts. Consider forming task forces with constituents from different communities within a county to ensure your strategy incorporates the needs of rural, urban, and low-income residents. As you secure funding and your plan starts to take shape, road shows can be useful for level-setting expectations, explaining challenges, laying out next steps, and celebrating milestones in what can be a lengthy process.

Once you have the infrastructure in place, another marketing push will be needed to drive subscribership and actually bring people online. Fortunately, ISPs will be eager to partner with you on high-speed internet adoption since they’ll have a clear financial incentive to do so.

A more equitable future awaits

Expanding broadband isn’t simple, but it’s worth it. Providing affordable high-speed internet access for everyone in your community lays the foundation for its future success. Broadband not only creates new connections to education and employment opportunities for underserved communities, it also unlocks the benefits of telehealth for vital medical and mental health support. Looking further into the future, it prepares people to participate more fully in technological progress as digital government services, smart cities, smart lighting, and virtual collaboration services come online to enrich and protect communities in new ways.

Broadband is a cornerstone of your digital transformation journey; establishing equitable and ubiquitous access is a key first step.  

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