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Access to broadband was an issue in Oklahoma before the COVID-19 pandemic — a problem that the sudden and long-term shift to remote work and learning threw into sharp relief. A few years before the pandemic, Oklahoma ranked 47th nationwide for average internet speeds and the share of residents connected, and in April 2020, schools estimated that nearly 1 in 4 students did not have a home internet connection. Now, a new bill (House Bill 3363) would help Oklahoma ensure that federal relief funding to improve connectivity would go where it’s needed most.
State Broadband Office would help state assess, meet needs
With no State Broadband Office, no broadband map, and no experience distributing state-funded broadband grants, Oklahoma has been behind the curve in establishing administrative infrastructure to increase access to broadband. Fortunately, federal American Rescue Plan Act funds can be directed toward that key infrastructure. Oklahoma has already set aside $2 million to build a broadband map that will highlight the areas lacking broadband availability at different speed thresholds. The map will include geocoded data for households, agricultural, and business structures, and the state will work with local providers and third-party speed tests to ensure that the map captures real-time, “on-the-ground” broadband availability.
HB 3363 would deliver on the second piece of critical infrastructure needed to ensure broadband access. HB 3363 would create an Oklahoma Broadband Office with the goal of delivering broadband access to 95 percent of Oklahomans in five years. The office would include several full-time employees who would oversee crucial aspects related to improving broadband availability and adoption.
Setting up a State Broadband Office is only the first step
HB 3363’s goal of reaching 95 percent broadband coverage by 2028 is ambitious and will only be met with hard work across multiple channels. My discussions with states that have had considerable success in improving broadband connectivity suggest between 5-10 people is appropriate for a State Broadband Office. The State Broadband Office’s work should fall into three interconnected categories: Data collection and analysis; policy development and execution; and funding management.
According to the proposed statute from HB 3363, the State Broadband Office should create and update the state’s broadband map. Using that data, office staff should create and update the state broadband plan, including robust community outreach both to collect data and improve adoption rates, such as through an Affordable Connectivity Program. They should also assess and recommend state-level legislation to improve broadband access, such as “dig-once” or permitting policies, to ensure that the State Broadband Office’s efforts aren’t unintentionally hobbled by existing state law. Finally, the state office should be actively engaged in digital inclusion and digital literacy work with newly connected Oklahomans.
Concurrently, the office should establish a program to award grants, loans, and other financial incentives to applicants to expand broadband availability. They should also serve as Oklahoma’s representative in the State Digital Equity Planning Grant program and develop a state digital equity plan to help Oklahoma compete for $2.7 billion in national funds over the coming years, maximizing federal funding coming into the state.
My own peer-reviewed study found that the establishment of formal state broadband offices led to higher levels of broadband competition and higher rates of fiber availability in rural areas. States have clearly recognized their importance over time: there were only eight such offices in 2014, but by 2021, nearly 30 were in existence. There is now a significant body of work on the “best practices” of these offices, and Oklahoma can learn from them.
Oklahoma should think bigger on broadband
Oklahoma has been allocated more than $1.8 billion in state-level ARPA funds. Within the four working groups for projects being considered for funding, broadband is listed as the top priority for the Infrastructure and Rural Development projects group. It seems clear that setting up an office to lead the effort would be a step in the right direction. The more relevant question might be how to continue the office after ARPA funds expire. ARPA funds must be spent by the end of 2026, so the first (and arguably most important) years would be covered.
The current plan is for the state’s broadband office to be temporary, shutting down less than two years after the ARPA funding ends. I would argue that this is short-sighted. The broadband world is constantly evolving, and we should expect that Oklahomans’ needs will evolve as well.
The size and roles of the state broadband office could be adjusted based on future needs and funding availability from the state legislature. Furthermore, broadband funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has no end date, and with $42 billion to spend, it may take a while to disburse. Some early successes in mapping where those funds are needed and effectively distributing them would go a long way in demonstrating what a state office can accomplish.
HB 3363 is an excellent first step, but Oklahoma should think bigger than the short-term on broadband because getting the infrastructure in place is only the first step. It is the adoption and effective use of broadband, not simple availability, that leads to improved economic outcomes.
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About the author
Brian Whitacre is Professor and Neustadt Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. He serves on the state’s Rural Broadband Expansion Council.