The NewDEAL is pleased to announce the finalists from this year’s Ideas Challenge, our biennial policy competition highlighting innovative policy solutions from NewDEAL Leaders across the nation. Their ideas would reimagine the social safety net, create good jobs, expand education opportunities, build more sustainable communities, and strengthen our democracy. This year’s Challenge came at an especially important time to identify best practices, as Leaders grapple with the work of rebuilding and recovery in the wake of the pandemic, and have a unique opportunity to act with federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. Winners in each of five categories will be announced next week during our 11th Annual Leaders Conference, on Thursday, November 18, and be featured in Governing Magazine. Join us on social media to celebrate these extraordinary ideas, and click here to read details on the finalists in all five categories!
While in the past lack of access to broadband internet may have merely been an inconvenience, it is now a public emergency. Since the onset of the pandemic, Marylanders have had no choice but to rely on access to the internet in order to access critical services, like healthcare, education, public benefits, and work/ business.
In 2017, the Governor sought to address the issue of connectivity through the creation of the Rural Broadband Office by Executive Order. This office has done important work, but there is so much more to be done. The problem in Maryland is greater than a lack of rural access. Our most populous cities experience similar gaps in access, affordability, adoption, and digital literacy. On several metrics, such as broadband upload/download speeds, the situation is worse in our urban areas. (Ex: 41% of Baltimore city residents do not subscribe to the internet and 31% do not own a desktop or laptop).
The creation of the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB) to expand on the work of the Office of Rural Broadband. It’s purpose is to address the causes of inequitable access – which range from lack of infrastructure to cost – and ensure that every Marylander can be connected to high-quality, high-speed, affordable, internet by 2026.
This office will also be charged with forming partnerships with local jurisdictions, state agencies, our library system, and the private sector to expand digital literacy and broadband across the state. The OSB will ensure that the state has a coordinated response to RFPs issued by the FCC or Federal Government for resources/ grants. OSB will also develop definitions and standards for broadband internet; addressing fair and equal pricing standards; auditing availability, reliability, and affordability of broadband; and collecting and analyzing pertinent data on geographic, economic, and demographic factors.
According to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, approximately 1.1 million North Carolina residents lack access to high-speed internet. This digital divide remains most prevalent in rural parts of our state, the result of cost, device inadequacy, and lack of digital literacy. In a digital age and the global pandemic, broadband access has become an issue of both equity and access.
The Innovative State Broadband Infrastructure bill (Senate Bill 517) would (1) appropriate money to the Department of Information Technology to prepare a statewide broadband maps; (2) relax regulatory burdens to expedite broadband expansion; (3) allow use of existing easements for broadband expansion; (4) expand distribution of state surplus computers and computer hardware for nonprofits; (5) expand funding for our state’s G.R.E.A.T. Program (which provides grants for the extension of high-speed internet to rural parts of the state), and (6) provide stopgap internet access for classroom access, healthcare, and job creation.
The pandemic brought to light the importance of broadband access to essential daily tasks. This was especially the case as schools were forced to go virtual and families struggled to navigate online education for the first time. Salt Lake City students from low-income families, many of whom lack quality broadband access, a computer or both, were the most impacted as traditional community resources such as libraries and public access computer labs were also forced to close due to the pandemic. A recent study by Michigan State University found that students who do not have access to the Internet from home or rely solely on cellular data perform lower on a range of metrics, including homework completion and grade point average (half a letter grade lower). Bridging this technology gap will increase digital literacy and improve student achievements in Salt Lake City.
The Digital Equity Policy of Salt Lake City was adopted on September 1, 2020 to address the imbalances related to digital equity. Two of the policy’s targeted action items called for increasing access to affordable broadband services and reliable devices. Salt Lake City is doing this through a program known as City Connect which activates public wifi hotspots in community centers and parks throughout the City and provides surplus computers to low-income students and families. Additionally, through a public-private partnership with Comcast “Lift Zones”, Salt Lake City is able to bring high quality broadband service to our community learning centers and facilities supporting our Youth and Family programs.
Expanding Broadband Access in Maryland
Recently, NewDEAL Leader Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson joined other Democratic leaders and the state’s Governor to announce a new Connect Maryland initiative to boost broadband access, using $300 million in American Rescue Plan funds, supplemented with $100 million in state funding. Spending priorities will be set by a bipartisan workgroup of the city, county, and state elected officials. The new initiative aims to achieve the 98% connectivity goal set by legislation sponsored by NewDEAL Leader Delegate Brooke Lierman, which also created a statewide broadband office to develop a plan for the expansion. Read more on how Maryland NewDEALers are working to ensure everyone in their state can get connected, and keep an eye on the NewDEAL Forum Broadband Task Force for continued work on policy guidance to achieve connectivity across the nation.
Closing Colorado’s Digital Divide
This week, NewDEAL Leader Colorado Senator Jeff Bridges’ bill to invest in internet access was signed into law. With the pandemic adding urgency to the necessity for access to high-speed reliable internet to participate in economic activities, education, telehealth, and more, Bridges’ bill provides $75 million to connect unserved and underserved communities, including $20 million specifically set aside for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Tribes. Learn more about how this funding increases equity, and keep an eye out for information on similar topics from the NewDEAL Forum Broadband Task Force.
Incentivizing Cybersecurity Measures
This week, the Connecticut House of Representatives unanimously passed NewDEAL Leader Representative Caroline Simmons’s cybersecurity bill that will incentivize businesses throughout the state to voluntarily adopt programs and practices that have been proven to increase protection from cyber threats. Representative Simmons highlighted that the bill “works to protect Connecticut’s infrastructure, utilities, businesses, hospitals, schools, and consumers.” Read more about Rep. Simmons’ bill and its next steps here.
Expanding Broadband Access in Florida
This week, the Florida Legislature passed the bipartisan 2021 Broadband Internet Infrastructure bill to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas of the state, including NewDEAL Leader Florida Senator Loranne Ausley’s measure to use $1.5 million to develop maps of broadband availability by June 2022. This builds on rural broadband work Ausley started last year while serving in the Florida House, where she co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that created a new Office of Broadband, signed into law in June 2020. Read more about the latest bill here. And keep your eyes open for more from Senator Ausley on broadband, as she co-chairs the forthcoming NewDEAL Forum Broadband Task Force.
Implementing Broadband Connectivity in Maryland
This week, NewDEAL Leader Maryland Delegate Brooke Lierman’s Digital Connectivity Act of 2021 was signed into law after the Maryland General Assembly approved the bill. As a result, the Office of Statewide Broadband will soon be established and work towards ensuring state residents, including 520,000 households that lack wireless internet access, have access to high-speed, affordable-broadband internet by 2026. Read more about Delegate Lierman’s bill here, and for more from the NewDEAL Forum on policies to help lay the foundation for the effective expansion of broadband access and adoption, check out the NewDEAL Forum Education Policy Group’s report Aligning the Future of Education with Workforce Opportunities.