COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of broadband connectivity in our society. Our K-12 and college students have transitioned to online learning, many professionals have shifted to teleworking arrangements, and applying for unemployment or small business assistance programs requires filing documents via the internet. Individuals and households lacking an internet connection are even more cut off from friends and family during social distancing. A survey of Oklahoma school districts found that 167,000 out of 700,000 students lacked an internet connection at home. Being disconnected – regardless of the reason – has never been a bigger disadvantage.
Even before COVID-19 arrived, the Oklahoma broadband situation was relatively poor. A 2018 report ranked Oklahoma 47th out of 50 states in terms of our average speeds and percent of residents connected. The most recent official data from the FCC shows that nationally, 94% of people have access to the official “broadband” threshold speed of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. In Oklahoma, that number stands at 79%. More strikingly, only 48% of our rural residents have access to a broadband connection, which is significantly lower than the 74% at the national level. The figure below demonstrates that more than 75% of the population lacks broadband access in some Oklahoma counties.
Broadband availability is, by itself an important problem for the state to address. But even in areas with good local broadband service, many households lack their own internet connection. This is mostly due to cost, since a $50-100 monthly internet bill is simply not feasible for many families. Forty percent of Oklahoma households earning less than $20,000 have no internet connection, including through a smartphone. This number shrinks to 6% for households earning more than $75,000.
The federal response to COVID-19 has included several broadband components. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act) signed into law in late March included $13.5 billion for online learning /distance education needs; an additional $100 million for the existing ReConnect program which targets rural broadband provision; $200 million for a COVID-19 Telehealth program; and $50 million for digital inclusion work through the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These are mostly funds for providers and organizations, and states have an opportunity to do more. Many private providers have signed the Keep America Connected Pledge indicating they will not terminate service due to lack of payment during the pandemic. Several Oklahoma providers have also offered free or reduced-cost services during this time.
So what can Oklahoma as a state do? Recent research from the Benton Institute and the Pew Broadband Initiative has explored this issue. Below are three policy suggestions that build off their findings from the experiences and efforts to improve broadband in other states.
1. Set up an official state broadband office with full-time employees
It may come as a surprise that Oklahoma does not have a formal state broadband office. The real surprise is that we are hardly a laggard in that department: a recent analysis from Pew Research found that only 28 states currently have broadband offices or task forces with full-time employees. Pew has highlighted several states with successful broadband offices and pointed out examples of promising practices such as stakeholder outreach, policy framework setting, planning, and program evaluation. This “one-stop shop” for broadband policy would represent a dramatic improvement of the current environment where state personnel working in broadband are splintered across different organizations – often as a secondary component of their main position.
2. Develop a state-level broadband infrastructure funding program
The few states that have put into place state-level funding programs to improve broadband availability have seen significant success. Only four such programs existed in 2010; they have expanded to more than 20 as of 2019. These programs typically award grants and loans to providers applying to serve more rural parts of their states that currently lack access. The amounts (and mechanisms) of funding vary but are generally between $20 million to $200 million per year from the state legislatures.
3. Develop a statewide digital inclusion initiative
A significant amount of academic research has indicated that it is broadband adoption and not simple availability that leads to economic growth. As such, helping people develop skills to get online and make productive use of the internet is crucial. An important component of this is the “digital inclusion” movement to ensure that all people have access to internet-related technology. Related policies involve providing low-cost, refurbished computers to low-income households; offering classes and workshops on digital skills; and working with providers to develop low-cost internet access programs.
Broadband connectivity will be an important part of our society both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oklahoma Legislature should take advantage of the attention drawn to this issue and develop policies that will set us up for the increasingly digital future.
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About the author
Dr. Brian Whitacre serves as Sarkeys Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.