Efforts continue to expand broadband access

A Jan. 9 brief released by the Pew Charitable Trusts details the goals, requirements and other considerations for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, an ambitious federal investment in high-speed, affordable internet.

BEAD dedicates more than $42 billion to construct broadband networks, offers subsidies to offset the cost of internet service for lower-income households, and make available programs to provide users with the devices and training they need to use the new and upgraded networks.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — the agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce that administers the program — has established five minimum requirements for all BEAD-funded projects. They must:

  • Deliver internet service that is not subject to data caps and has reliable speeds of at least 100 (download)/20 (upload) megabits and low enough latency (the time it takes for data to travel to its destination and back along the network and which consumers experience as a delay, such as choppiness and buffering) to support real-time applications such as online learning, videoconferencing and more.
  • Participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 a month discount to eligible households (and $75 a month for households on Tribal lands), and offer at least one low-cost broadband service option.
  • Build and operate networks with average combined outages that do not exceed 48 hours a year, with exceptions for natural disasters.
  • Develop cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans to ensure that critical infrastructure is protected from threats such as hacking.
  • Provide broadband service to users within four years of receipt of funds, carry out public awareness campaigns and make connections available to any customer within the service area covered by the funding award.

In addition to delivering affordable fiber connections to unserved areas, states may use funds to connect identified communities to anchor institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals.

“This investment will touch nearly every aspect of the broadband space and will bring broadband access to more unserved and underserved communities than any previous effort, while also providing much-needed support for broadband adoption programs and community anchor institutions,” according to researchers. “To meet the requirements of the BEAD Program, states and territories are already scaling up their broadband programs to ensure proper data collection, planning, stakeholder engagement, and funding decisions. And although this investment still will likely not be enough to achieve universal access, combined with other federal broadband funding, it will bring the nation closer to closing the digital divide than ever before.”

Broadband in California

Fact sheets released in summer 2022 by the Public Policy Institute of California provided snapshots of broadband access both among the overall population and in education, which show that while gaps remain in broadband access, local, state and federal efforts to bridge the digital divide had made significant progress since the onset of the pandemic — especially among students.

Using data from 2020–22, researchers found that among families with K-12 students, low-income households and those headed by someone without a bachelor’s degree experienced significant gains in reliable access to both devices and internet. Black and Latino K-12 households also saw dramatic increases in device access but made no gains in internet access.

PPIC researchers noted at the time that the data was reflective of the challenges of reaching households in remote areas that do not have internet infrastructure and low-income households in crowded urban areas that cannot afford reliable internet.

Local educational agencies throughout the state have also taken impressive steps to support children and families in their communities.

Fresno Unified School District, Lindsay USD, Imperial County Office of Education and Ventura COE were among several LEAs that launched local initiatives before and during the pandemic to provide their students with internet access, often by partnering with private industry partners. In October 2022, for instance, a high-speed internet system was launched in Fairhaven, located about two miles southwest of downtown Eureka on the Samoa Peninsula. The collaborative effort between the Humboldt County Office of Education, California-based technology firm Dalet Access Labs and Samoa Peninsula Fire provides previously unconnected households with download speeds at around 100 megabits, and low latency speeds of 700 to 900 megabits at around $15 per month.

Dalet and Humboldt COE worked with Cogent Communications and AT&T to launch a live fiber optic line to the Fairhaven firehouse structure, and sensors were established with the main access point at the fire house due to its proximity to all the homes in the community. Using Dalet’s technology, wireless “nodes” were deployed throughout the community for families with students.