The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly forced state and local governments to modernize at lightning speed to not only provide government services online, but help residents access the technology they need to socially distance themselves properly.
In a recent report, the Pew Charitable Trusts highlighted how states and local governments have used some of the $150 billion provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020 – to modernize in order to meet citizens’ needs. The report also shares policy considerations for state and local governments for a post-pandemic world.
In addition to using the funding to meet immediate public health and safety needs, state, local, and tribal governments have also used CARES Act money to focus on four primary needs: supporting telehealth services; deploying more public Wi-Fi access points; investing in residential broadband infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas; and increasing access to online learning for K-12 and postsecondary students.
While the focus of the medical community has obviously been treating COVID-19 patients, Pew noted that using telehealth services – such as text and video conference apps – has increased in popularity among consumers seeking non-urgent and routine medical care. The report said that five states – Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, and Vermont – have apportioned CARES funding to provide broadband grants that target a range of connectivity needs, including telehealth services.
The pandemic has caused forced many adults to work remotely, and schools to transition to distance learning. However, Pew found that the pandemic has caused the closure of many places that people without home internet connections rely on to access public Wi-Fi, such as schools and libraries. To meet this challenge, several states have allocated CARES Act funding to the creation of more public internet access points.
Residential broadband infrastructure
The broadband divide has long been an issue at the forefront for both Federal and state governments. Securing the needed funding to close the divide has been a pain point for governments. However, the pandemic has provided state and local governments with a pot of money readily available to expand broadband coverage. Several states that did not have broadband grant programs before COVID-19 – including Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina – have used CARES Act dollars to establish emergency initiatives. States that already had grant programs have used CARES Act money to create emergency funds that are also helping expand broadband infrastructure to meet increased demand.
As both K-12 and post-secondary schools move to distance and hybrid learning to stem the spread of COVID-19, schools need emergency funding to provide the technology and infrastructure to support such a massive shift in how students learn. As with the broadband divide, the digital divide among students has been an area of concern for educators and policymakers. Currently, it is estimated that 15-16 million K-12 students do not have adequate internet access or digital devices to effectively engage in online learning. Currently, 12 states have sought to address this challenge by dedicating CARES Act dollars to help families with K-12 students at home purchase internet-enabled devices, wireless hotspots, or both. Additionally, a couple of states have also directed CARES Act funding toward closing the higher education connectivity gap by upgrading college campus broadband networks, providing students with digital devices or hotspots, and enhancing learning-management systems. Learn more about how state and local governments are improving digital learning.
Considerations for policymakers
While states deserve credit for modernizing rapidly amidst the pandemic, Pew urges governments to consider the post-pandemic future.
“These efforts, though important, are not long-term solutions to the problem of inadequate residential broadband service,” the report noted.
Instead, states need to prioritize connecting more residences to existing infrastructure.
“Broadband network infrastructure may be available in communities, but that does not mean every household is connected to it,” the report noted. “In many cases, the last pieces of the network … are lacking. Public programs that provide funding for these parts of the network can bring more residents online, particularly in rural and remote communities.”
More broadly, states need to invest in planning and oversight for long-term solutions. “Successful state broadband grant programs undertake extensive planning and stakeholder engagement to be sure projects are ready to launch when funding becomes available and employ accountability measures to assess the feasibility of applications, track grantee progress, and ensure that funded projects are successful and meet community needs,” Pew said.
Finally, states need to coordinate with government partners at all levels to support broadband deployment. “Current federal funding sources for broadband have limited engagement with state-level initiatives, which may offer more targeted strategies for addressing the digital divide,” the report noted.