When it comes to public programs that pay for improving access to broadband in rural areas, the federal government is the biggest game in town. But, depending on where you live, it may not be the only game.
Many states have launched their own programs to help communities get better connected. Those efforts range from big bucks – like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for a $500 million broadband development fund – to something more akin to “moral support.” Numerous states have broadband offices that study, consult, and advise but don’t have any money to invest.
One state that is considering a significant bump in broadband funding this year is Minnesota, where Governor Mark Dayton has requested funding for $100 million in grants to support broadband expansion. That’s a tenfold increase from last year.
I know about Minnesota’s broadband news because of “Blandin on Broadband,” the blog written and edited by Ann Treacy. So I figured Ann would be a good place to start looking for information on what other states are doing about rural broadband funding.
As it turns out, Ann has just published a preliminary list of state broadband programs. She said the list is a starting place, not a final product.
“To be frank, this is the best research six hours over a weekend is going to buy you,” she told me.
(If you are interested in a similar list from federal agencies, here’s a good starting place.)
We asked Ann to share some of what she learned looking at public efforts around the country to improve rural broadband.
Daily Yonder: What’s so important about state broadband funding that you’d take six hours out of your weekend to work on a preliminary list?
Ann Treacy: I wanted to learn from other states. We have a perfect storm brewing in Minnesota with an influx of federal funding, a state budget surplus, and number of private providers who are taking on the challenge of building world-class broadband. The question is how can we harness that storm to the advantage of everyone in the state? It would be nice to see the federal and state funding play off each other to support more, better infrastructure. I really wanted to see if someone was doing something smart with that play in another state.
The federal government has made a big investment in infrastructure through Connect American Funds (CAF 2) to be spent over the next five years. But they only require providers to build 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. (Compare that to the National Broadband Goal speed of 100/50 by 2020 to 100 million homes – it’s a huge difference!) Many providers will build beyond that speed but some may not, which will leave those communities at a disadvantage. In Minnesota we have a budget surplus, so we’re in a position to make an investment. We also have some providers – especially cooperatives – who have risen to the call of providing series broadband in rural areas.
Yonder: Did anything you find surprise you? Are there states where it appears folks are taking the broadband funding issue more seriously than others?
Treacy: I created a similar list a few years ago, when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act [a.k.a., the stimulus package] funding was supporting projects in many states. It’s been disheartening to see how few of those projects have continued – although I could see the impact of ARRA funding when reading about past projects.
I applaud the goal-setting of Alaska (100 Mbps for all) and Hawaii (Gig to all), although I’m not sure I see a direct roadmap to getting that done. A few states had grant programs, which are great, but the amount funded seemed small compared to the cost of building. One exception is New York, which is [considering] investing $500 million – a big number. But I wonder what the projected costs to fill the gap there are. In Minnesota, for example, estimates for meeting broadband needs are $1-3 billion.
Other states seem to be regrouping – doing research and forming task forces and committees. I’m just afraid that some doors may be shut – at least in terms of capitalizing on federal funding – if we see too much planning and limited action.
Yonder: Are there any programs that sound especially interesting or unique (with the understanding that reading a webpage doesn’t make you an expert on a state program)?
Treacy: The most compelling efforts to me are the ones where the local governments collaborate to work with service providers. Municipalities in Connecticut are doing that. In Minnesota, Dakota County has been very successful working with a private provider and pulling in neighboring counties to create middle-mile infrastructure that meets the needs of anchor tenants, saves the county money. …
For better or for worse, I’ve learned that Minnesota is doing a good job. We have an Office of Broadband Development, a Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, and a state broadband fund. Politicians are talking about the need for investment. It’s nice to know we’re doing well, but I feel like we need a mentor to help us be better. That’s why I created the list. On the next wintery weekend when I have some time, I might need to take a look at what other countries are doing.