The COVID-19 pandemic caused a radical shift in how Americans worked, learned, and interacted with the government. As a result of those changes, state and local government (SLG) policymakers focused heavily on expanding access to affordable, highspeed broadband services.
A new report from the Pew Charitable Trust found that despite experiencing budget shortfalls and an economic recession, states pushed forward with increasing broadband funding. While broadband efforts last year may have been in part funded by Federal COVID relief money, states are continuing their efforts to expand broadband in 2021.
According to Pew’s research, last year saw 12 state legislatures allocate money to existing broadband funds, with totals ranging from $1.5 million to $51 million, or to other state entities authorized to finance broadband projects. Pew noted that such large funding commitments for broadband expansion would “be noteworthy in any year,” but that it was especially noteworthy in 2020 because the funding occurred “amid significant budget uncertainty linked to the recession.”
In terms of how states are funding broadband, many are using money from the CARES Act passed in 2020.
According to the report, several states – including Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia – established emergency infrastructure grant programs with CARES Act money. Many states with existing broadband grant programs allocated Federal relief dollars to those accounts. For example, North Carolina, Oregon, and Arkansas made appropriations to existing broadband programs. Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Mississippi, and South Carolina established emergency online learning programs with COVID relief funding to connect students to digital devices and broadband services for remote learning.
In addition to expanding funding, many states have created broadband offices or task forces. Pew found that states are tasking their broadband programs with overseeing stakeholder engagement, data management, planning, and administering grant programs, which Pew said are all essential for effective coordination of broadband deployment.
While many states are seeing COVID-19 numbers drop and are beginning to “re-open,” the push to expand broadband access continues. Pew found that 40 governors, both Democrats and Republicans, included broadband initiatives in their 2021 State of the State speeches. Pew also found that states are prepping for another round of Federal funding, this time from the American Rescue Plan Act, as well as an infrastructure bill that is still being negotiated.