Pew Puts State Broadband Policy in One Place - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 372

For community leaders, advocates, and researchers who follow broadband policy, trying to stay up-to-date on the many variations of state policy across the U.S. is a daunting task. As approaches change, the work becomes more complicated. Now, the Pew Charitable Trusts has launched a new tool that helps keep all that information sorted and accessible — the State Broadband Policy Explorer. Manager of the Broadband Research Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts Kathryn de Wit sits down with Christopher to talk about the tool for this week's podcast.

Kathryn describes some of the challenges and discoveries her team encountered while developing the tool. She talks about the wide variations her team documented, especially in definitions, and their determination that those variations rely on who in each state determines which definitions will be used.

While working on the State Broadband Policy Explorer, Kathryn and her team were surprised to learn that, contrary to popular reporting, not as many states have established official offices of broadband deployment as they had expected.  She shares commonalities between states that they found surprising while she and Christopher ponder some of the many ways the tool may be used moving forward.

We've already bookmarked this valuable tool.

Check out the State Broadband Policy Explorer for yourself here.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Kathryn de Wit: State policy matters.

Lisa Gonzalez: Indeed, it does. Welcome to episode 372 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Kathryn de Wit from the Pew Charitable trusts joins Christopher to discuss the many ways state broadband policy's changing. She's here to talk about the organization's nifty new tool, the state broadband policy explorer. You can find the tool at in the projects section under "governing" and "broadband research." Kathryn described some of the discoveries her team made while developing this tool that documents state-level broadband policies. She also talks about the challenges they faced when taking on such a large task and talks about information they encountered that surprised them. The tool will lead to additional research, and Kathryn gets into the way she hopes others will use it and some of the questions she thinks the broadband policy explorer can answer moving forward. Now here's Christopher and Kathryn de Wit from the Pew Charitable trusts.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Today, I'm speaking with Kathryn de Wit, the manager of the broadband research initiative from Pew Charitable trusts. Welcome to the show.

Kathryn de Wit: Thanks Chris. I'm really happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm excited to talk to you. You and I have gone back and forth a little bit over the past six months, and you've unveiled this new tool, which is fun and could very well suck up too much of my time in the coming months. But let's start, before we get into the exciting state broadband policy explorer, just by backing up a second and let me ask you, what is Pew and what do you do at the broadband research initiative?

Kathryn de Wit: Well, thank you again for having me. We're really excited to be here today. The Pew Charitable trusts is a research and public policy organization that operates as an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to serving the public interest. Many of your listeners are probably familiar with our partner organization called the Pew Research Center. They are a public polling entity that measures, in this case, user perceptions of broadband access and adoption. Our research with the broadband research initiative is examining questions that policymakers at all levels of government may find useful as they craft solutions to help close gaps in broadband access. So that's looking at questions related to broadband data, connectivity and mapping, looking at the economic impacts of broadband and characteristics of broadband connectivity and how that will impact usage. But the bulk of our team's work is focused on what we're calling "state promising practices," so that's what states are doing to effectively close gaps in broadband access. That research started about a year ago with a 50 state analysis of broadband deployment policy that states have on the books. That resulted in this state broadband policy explorer, which I'm here to talk to you about today.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, we do appreciate it. Even just taking quick glances around at it, this is one of those things that would have simplified a lot of the work that we try to do because it's so easy to find the different state policies. Well, let's actually just start by describing what the state broadband policy explorer is. When you were setting out to create it, what were you envisioning?

Kathryn de Wit: We actually didn't have a plan for this when we started our research. We have all worked in this space in some capacity before and wanted to do this sort of 50 state landscape view of policy. We felt that it was important to really get that understanding of kind of what all states have on the books because policy is so important in this space ⁠— and really every space ⁠— but as we were doing that research, we realized that there wasn't a database out there that included all laws across multiple categories and over many years. There are a number of organizations, of course, like yours that do fantastic work on certain legislative sessions or on certain subjects, but we wanted to create sort of a one-stop tool that any type of stakeholder could go in and learn about different categories, learn about different states. And the goal was to make it as useful and educational as possible, so that anyone from, you know, your Aunt Betty in Maine who runs the local community broadband initiative to a legislative staffer in a state house could use it and hopefully help inform their own activities.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was just all the different definitions of broadband, and it actually makes me just really impressed that you were able to find all this because when we've tried to look into that, we've kind of given up. And I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about the challenge of putting this together because I feel like states may define broadband in multiple different ways even, and so, you know, what was the real challenge in terms of looking through these different state statutes to figure out which ones were related to broadband and how to categorize them?

Kathryn de Wit: You're right. It certainly was not an easy undertaking. It took a number of months. I mean, this whole thing has been about a year in the making. We searched for words like "broadband," "telecommunications," and "high-speed Internet," and then excluded policies that are outside of our research scope, things that have to do explicitly with Internet use, broadband adoption, things like web access to state programs or services, Internet crimes, and gambling. You know, the interesting thing in all of this ⁠— this was an interesting exercise in how states actually manage their information. Some states make it very easy to review their policy. It's searchable. You know, you can dial right down to the specific thing that you're looking for. Others have very large PDFs or HTML documents that are not searchable.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, I am smiling and nodding vigorously. It's even ⁠— in some ways it's gotten better. It used to be so bad. I don't know if you had tried to do some of this 5 - 10 years ago where I feel like you couldn't even use your back button sometimes. You would kind of, like, get somewhere and you had to start all over to try and get just up one level. It's just a nightmare.

Kathryn de Wit: Two of us were actually doing this research about five years ago, which is part of the reason why we wanted to develop this tool.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I"m sure. So you have categorized it in a handy tool that people can look at it via state. Oh, and I should say, I was gonna maybe give out the URL, but it'd be easier I think if people just do a search on the Internet for "Pew state broadband policy explorer" to get right to it. But you list them by state. You also have categories where you've broken it down into "broadband programs," "competition and regulation," "definitions," "funding and financing," "infrastructure access," and then an "other." And then people can also view by year. So, I'm hoping we see researchers building on this to maybe make some interesting findings in terms of how states have followed each other or learned from each other over the years.

Kathryn de Wit: Yeah, I would agree with that. We hope that not only that a lot of researchers are able to use this to do their own research, but the piece about states learning from one another is really interesting because that was pretty evident through the research that states are looking to one another for guidance and for information, so we're seeing similar policies across a number of states. I think the other thing that's interesting about the year piece is that there were pretty clear timelines of activity that occurred really in four areas. So the first were the late nineties with the Telecommunications Act and establishing statewide networks. The second phase was the 2005 to 2008 era, where we saw a lot of activity related to municipal broadband, the jurisdiction of PUCs, and establishment of early offices and task forces. The 2009 to 2014 era was the state broadband initiatives, so there's more formalization of offices, discussion about SBI programs or state programs, and then the establishment of funds. 2015 to now is more about creating programs and funds ⁠— establishing more programs and funds, addressing small cells, and then Right-of-Way

Christopher Mitchell: That makes sense. I wonder if this is a period in which we're going to see significant change. In some ways, I mean, you know, you mentioned that we've seen a lot of states establishing funds. I feel like we're commonly seeing those funds seated with on the order of single digit millions or tens of millions of dollars per year. New York actually did the $500 million program, which was funded by fines on banks. But now Chicago ⁠— Chicago? Boy. You know, I had too many cookies at lunch and my blood sugar is just not working well with my brain apparently. We just saw Illinois just put $420 million into this, which seems like a whole new threshold that we may in five years come back and look at as a change of major significance I think.

Kathryn de Wit: Yeah, I think we're looking at things the same way.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about any policies that you found interesting. I mean, the broad categorization, seeing those patterns was interesting, but did you see anything in any of the states that you just wouldn't have thought of beforehand?

Kathryn de Wit: Well, I think a couple of things. Those five categories that we identified ⁠— we had talked to folks as we were scoping this research about what type of information would be helpful, but those five key categories really were very clear in the research. They emerged clearly. They are distinct. So that was, I think, one of the things that was surprising, but I think really what that speaks to though is the breadth of what states are covering with their broadband deployment policy. They're not just establishing programs. They are lining up, you know, and outlining specifically what those programs will do, where they will live, who that responsible state agency will partner with. They're being very specific. A state like West Virginia for example, their broadband enhancement council is captured in statute now, and it's not just "We will establish this council." It also then goes in and lays out who the membership will be composed of. And so, that's really interesting. It's just the level of specificity that's coming through in this policy. You touched earlier on the definitions piece, and that was also, I think, surprising to us a little bit too or interesting at the very least. So first, the definitions themselves. So states are primarily defining them by speed, by the federal government's definition, or by technology, and those definitions are then tied to different provisions in statute. They can be tax incentives, funding, or goals, and in some cases they have different definitions tied to different provisions in statute. This is then ⁠— sorry, let me know if I'm getting a little too wonky for you.

Christopher Mitchell: No, no. This is really helpful.

Kathryn de Wit: Okay. You know, and then you go to the next level of definitions, and then it's not just what is broadband but what is unserved. States are defining that by speed, technology type, or the percentage of population that is unserved. But then we have four states that are defining underserved, so that was surprising. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, and Missouri all have definitions for underserved, but they take different tacks. So you have a state like Wisconsin that is defining it by the number of providers that are available or that customers have to choose from, and then Vermont defines it by technology availability.

Christopher Mitchell: And Kathryn, you're not allowed pick sides I think, but I can definitively say that Minnesota is the superior way of doing it.

Kathryn de Wit: You have no bias in this whatsoever.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, no, no. And I certainly, you know, haven't offered input over the years as to that being a good decision. You know, one of the things that I find interesting is that the 28 states that have a, a speed definition of 1.5 Megabits or less, and you shouldn't take that as necessarily being 28 states, but there's 28 rules that touch on that speed. And then there's 16 rules in which ⁠— no, there's 13 of which it's defined by the FCC or U.S. code. You know, I have to say that when I'm looking at this as a person who is advising policymakers, I guess, when I look at this, I think because these things are often going to be in law for some unknown period of time, I really am interested in the ones that point to the FCC, an expert agency that is tasked with updating it periodically. And so, you know, it's useful for me to see that so many states I would presume had made a definition a long time ago and not gotten around to updating it. And so, you know, as a person who's trying to draw lessons from this, I would think that we really want to point people in the direction of using a dynamic definition that will be updated by experts that we can then yell at whenever we need to.

Kathryn de Wit: Well, it's always nice to have a scapegoat, but the definitions piece is . . . We're excited for our next round of research to really see kind of the role that those definitions, that those goals really play in a state program. So what does that look like in implementation? Why is that goal or definition the way that it is? And then, how are states sort of shaping that or evolving it along the way?

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I tried to do was to get a sense of whether more rules or broadband-related statutes in a state was correlated with any of my biases or any data that I was familiar with. And to me, it seemed like it was all over the map, and I'm curious if you saw anything just regarding the number of statutes that a given state had.

Kathryn de Wit: So we tried really hard as we were going through this not to do any sort of that quantification, more is better, less is better, you know, any of that comparison piece because of course, that's our natural inclination to say like, "Okay, what is this?" You know, "If a state has 16 laws versus a state that has 34, what does that mean?" But really our next phase of research in our promising practices is looking at 10 different states and kind of how they are using policy in order to shape their responses on the ground. And so at that point, you know, we'll have a better understanding of kind of what role policy actually plays in shaping opportunities to close gaps in access.

Christopher Mitchell: That makes sense, and it's good not to ⁠— it's good to, I think, have a good research design. Pew I'm sure is well versed in not getting ahead of itself in terms of anything that might bias your future research and conclusions.

Kathryn de Wit: Well, thank you. I think it's a lot easier said than done sometimes.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, no, I agree. We wrestle with that in here. It's not uncommon for us to have conversations along the lines of, you know, does this fit reality and what would we be looking for to disprove it and things like that. And you know, we don't hold ourselves to the same standards as Pew with the four of us that are working on this. But it's definitely a tough issue.

Kathryn de Wit: Some of it too is also about not jumping the shark. I mean, the argument is that, you know, we wanted to develop this landscape view: what's happening, where is it happening and how is that connected to activities on the ground? And in order to do that, we have to actually look at the policy itself and then eventually draw that connection because that policy analysis absolutely shaped the states that we were looking at for our promising practices and our understanding of kind of how states are going about addressing these problems. And it's fascinating.

Christopher Mitchell: I mean, I'm sure that you have had many conversations with top leaders. I mean, we've heard from governor's offices, from legislative offices, and in many cases, you know, they are people that are just trying to figure out what's going to work. And then everyone has a different power base, different assets in their state, different sets of challenges, and so it kind of goes all over the place. In some ways, I feel like maybe we try too hard to fit a pattern to the kinds of results we end up with. So let me ask you, regarding agencies that states have been setting up, one of the more recent trends that you noted, are there commonalities in terms of how states are designing an agency that's, you know, I would say interacting with broadband because in many cases they're not necessarily regulators but like broadband agencies within the states?

Kathryn de Wit: Yes, absolutely. That was actually one of the interesting takeaways from this research too. I think that, you know, you kind of question your own bubble or echo chamber or whatever you want to call it, depending on the day, based on your biases, you know, that kind of shape your perception of a question before you dive into it. But one of those was that we had heard so many states have established offices in statute. You know, so many. Well there are actually only five. Instead, we are seeing, as you pointed out, that more states have tasked agencies with specific responsibility. There are 34 that actually have that in statute, and the difference is whether, you know, it is establishing an office of broadband within a specific existing agency or if they're saying this entity is responsible for administering broadband efforts. And then sometimes, you know, those agencies will go and establish offices themselves. But what is interesting is these broadband efforts are living within the office of the CIO, the department of information technology, commerce, or some type of community and economic development, community affairs, that type of thing. It's really within those broad categories. We are really curious in our next round of research to see why activities have been placed in there. The other area where they're living is within the public service or public utilities commission, and what we did note from this research is that if activities are housed within the PSC or within the PUC, there is typically some type of connection or there is a connection to the USF, the Universal Service Fund, or their high cost support mechanism.

Christopher Mitchell: I can give you one data point. Here in Minnesota when they were setting up the program for the Border to Border fund and also the agency that was run so well for so many years by Danna MacKenzie, the discussion I think was in many ways a typical political discussion of where can we put this agency so that, you know, this interest group won't be too strong. And then other people would say, well, where can we put it so that that interest group won't be too strong. And so it's interesting again how some of these things, you know, may not be the way that you would design it ideally if you are only caring about broadband, but they can end up being a political football that can later be hard to deconstruct how it got there.

Kathryn de Wit: Yes, we've got ⁠— yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I'm sure. Because I would guess that as you're looking at this, you're probably thinking, "Wait a minute. Why is this broadband agency in that department. Does this even make sense?" And you know, without having kind of been there when the fights were happening, I imagine in the last moment it looks a little bit odd.

Kathryn de Wit: I will also add that it's helpful to work where we work because we have so many folks who have been in the trenches of state government and making state policy in particular. So you can say, like, "This match doesn't really seem to make sense. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be there?" and someone will say something like exactly what you just outlined. It's the political football, it's the relationships, it's, you know, maybe this is just where they decided to put it for whatever reason. But it's helpful to have folks inside the building who are like, "Yeah, no, this is actually pretty normal." There may not be some big explanation for it or there may be.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I have to think there's probably some pretty interesting email threads that we'll probably never see the light of day in terms of "what were they thinking?"

Kathryn de Wit: Maybe one day, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, right. The classic "50 years after James Madison's death" maybe. As we're wrapping up, I'm curious about any outliers in one direction and then common policies on the other that we haven't talked about that you think are worth flagging to people that may want to check out.

Kathryn de Wit: The commonalities piece was interesting. The most focused on task forces, establishing funds, and then addressing municipal broadband. And really what those pieces come back to is adding specificity around a couple of key questions that providers or communities need to know in order to, you know, develop responses to these gaps in access. So that is, you know, what is broadband, who can provide it, what is our state trying to accomplish, are there funds or incentives available? It really is, again, adding clarity to what the options are for communities and providers to implement.

Christopher Mitchell: And were there any outliers in terms of something that you might say, "Wow, I think a lot more states will be doing that in the future"?

Kathryn de Wit: Well, it's interesting. I think one of the kind of interesting points from this ⁠— well there are a couple, so settle in. The first is setting goals. So states tend to have goals in one of two categories. So the first is a border to border goal like you outlined, so Minnesota and West Virginia are two of the states that have that border to border universal coverage. Anybody and anywhere in the state, they want to have access to broadband. Then you have other states like California that use more of a percentage based goal, so in California, their goal is that 98 percent of the population in each one of its 20 regions will have access to broadband. So that was one of those interesting things of you know, oh, these states all have this common challenge of increasing access to broadband, but how are they going to define their own version of success? Another interesting piece was where else broadband is defined as an eligible expense. So you have broadband included as an eligible expense in things like grants for infrastructure improvement, in Idaho or in North Carolina where local governments are allowed to use broadband in its industrial development fund utility account. Then you have other states that are using CDBG, community development block grant funding, and including broadband as part of their CDBG plans. West Virginia and Virginia are doing that right now. And these things that are interesting, as broadband as eligible expenses or included expenses, it's not just like, "Oh, broadband is popping up here," but I think what it does is reinforce the argument that broadband is really coming out of that telecommunications silo. And policymakers are seeing its connection and understanding its connection to things like economic development, precision agriculture, smart cities, distance learning, which as you know, you don't need me to tell you this, but broadband is the technology that underlies all of those priorities.

Christopher Mitchell: That makes sense. In some sense, I would expect that we see legislators that are looking for almost any port in a storm and looking how they can attach this because they know that broadband is this multi-use, general purpose technology that will benefit all kinds of things. But if we can get it in with a focus on education, we also hope that it will benefit telemedicine and that sort of a thing.

Kathryn de Wit: I think the one last thing that I will add to this that we are curious about, particularly as we move forward into our next phase of research, is that stakeholder engagement and local engagement piece. So Oregon enacted its local broadband champions bill ⁠— I'm sorry, was that last year, 2018? And then you have states like Virginia and Georgia that both require some type of local planning. So, you know, how does that local engagement ⁠— and not necessarily municipal broadband, but how does local engagement play into state policy making? And what are states doing to encourage more local engagement in broadband planning?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I was just revisiting this regarding North Carolina where they are particularly interested in local engagement on matters of digital inclusion because we were critical that they didn't let cities do enough on their own to build infrastructure, and the governor's office had responded that, well, we really expect them to work on digital inclusion, and we're trying to be partners with them in that. So I would expect that we'll see more of that. I mean, frankly, as you know, from any sort of look at broadband around the country, it's remarkable how different it is from place to place that may look the same on the map. You know, this is a harder conversation than I expected because there's so many different directions that we can go with this, and at the same time, you know, you are so focused on the policy and not rendering judgment on this, which, you know, I'm used to casting down judgments like Zeus throwing a thunderstorm. So I appreciate you bearing with me, and I really appreciate your time going over this tool. Before we close, is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we noted before we bring it to a close?

Kathryn de Wit: State policy matters.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Well I think that's wonderful, and I think that your tool is going to help improve state policy. You know, maybe not always in the direction that I myself would want, but this is going to lead to progress and most important, we'll see states going in different directions, we'll be able to study it and learn from it, and I think that's what we really need to be doing in the next few years. So, thank you for making this all possible.

Kathryn de Wit: No, thank you. I really appreciate not only you having me on the show today and for your kind words about our research, but also about all of the research and analysis that you and your team do. It's really helpful.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Kathryn de Wit from the Pew Charitable Trusts discussing their new resource on state broadband policy. Remember to check out the tool at Go to the project section under governing, and click on broadband research. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 372 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.