If state IT leaders want to close the broadband divide, they need to work with Federal, state, and local governments, as well as private sector partners to get it done.

During a panel discussion at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) 2021 Midyear Conference, state IT experts stressed that the struggle to expand broadband connectivity doesn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Scott Adams, deputy director for broadband and digital literacy in California, Tony Neal-Graces, CIO of Colorado, and Tarek Tomes, CIO of Minnesota, largely agreed on not only the importance of closing the digital divide but also strategies states should use to succeed in that task.

All three panelists agreed that while broadband connectivity has been a hot topic for state governments for years, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the critical nature of broadband as the country shifted to telework, telemedicine, and distance learning. While the pandemic may be coming to an end, the need for broadband connectivity isn’t going away.

Tomes explained that “[broadband] connectivity and our economy are intertwined,” adding that the pandemic has permanently changed how Americans will work and live. “If you have access, you can participate in economic opportunity,” he said. In terms of how Minnesota is improving connectivity, Tomes said that partnerships with the private sector and philanthropic organizations are key.

Neal-Graves agreed, and shared that Colorado has created a broadband advisory committee made up of directors of state agencies, local government leaders, the private sector, and regular citizens to create “a dialogue” to solve the problem of connectivity. While Neal-Graves said he is grateful for increased Federal funding, he added that “if you don’t have engagement at the local level it is incredibly challenging to get solutions into local communities.”

He said Colorado has focused on giving grants to local governments and communities to develop broadband plans, rather than having a singular state plan. “It can’t just be the state, it can’t just be industry, it can’t just be the Federal government, it has to be everyone coming to the table to discuss how we’re going to solve the problem in a specific community,” he explained. Partnering with local communities and the private sector “has created a tremendous amount of momentum,” he said.

Adams – who said his state is not only focused on rural and Tribal land connectivity, but also ensuring adequate speeds to take full advantage of broadband’s opportunities – shared his state’s efforts to foster collaboration. Last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order (EO) to accelerate broadband expansion. As part of the order, the California Broadband Council (CBC) was required to develop a new State Broadband Action Plan by Dec. 31, 2020. Adams said that the work of the CBC to bring together private and public sector stakeholders has been “critically important.” He added that “having that body together really allowed us to support the Governor’s broadband EO during COVID-19.”

Of course, when it comes to broadband expansion, significant funding is needed. The panelists all discussed receiving a mix of Federal and state funding – including funding as part of the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan – as well as potential funding from the American Jobs Plan, which is still in negotiation.

In addition to funding that comes directly to their teams, Neal-Graves also touched on the importance of telecommunications companies applying for – and receiving – Federal grants. “Small providers either don’t know how to or don’t have the resources to apply for Federal grants offered by different agencies,” he explained. He added that his office has a go-to person for navigating the Federal grant process, which he said is key. He added with a laugh that he tells his team, “Let’s get our unfair share of Federal money.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs