STILLWATER, Okla. — As workplaces and schools go online to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many people are relying on a strong internet connection. But in some states, less than 50% of rural households have access to broadband, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.
A study from Oklahoma State University and Purdue found that some government policies can increase — or inhibit broadband availability in rural areas.
The researchers found state funding and establishing a state broadband office have been shown to improve broadband access in rural areas. Around 30 states have a state broadband office with full-time employees, and half of states have line items in their budgets for broadband funding.
According to the study, rural areas saw an increase of broadband availability from 24% in 2012 when many states began implementing policies, to 71% in 2018.
But 19 states, including Missouri, Nebraska and Texas, restrict whether cities and municipalities can have their own broadband network.
Brain Whitacre, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, says many states have this policy because officials believe using taxpayer dollars to build networks in individual cities wouldn’t be fair to private providers. Whitacre argues states that have these policies are inhibiting access to broadband and are falling behind because of them..
“What our analysis found is that, if these restrictions will when these restrictions are in place, that reduces your overall availability by about three to four percentage points,” Whitacre says.
Some states, like Colorado, have removed the restrictive policies.. While Oklahoma doesn’t have restrictions, it does not specifically fund companies to build rural broadband nor does it have a state-established broadband office with full-time employees. The Oklahoma legislature created Rural Broadband Expansion Council earlier this year to make recommendations for new policies to help expand broadband and reduce internet costs.
About 61% of rural areas in Oklahoma have broadband access — below the national average for rural areas of 77%. States like Kansas and Missouri have are closer to the national average — about 77% and 69% respectively. Others are further behind, like Arkansas, at about 59%. Illinois is at 68%.
David Ostrowe, Oklahoma secretary of digital transformation and administration, says one obstacle for significant broadband expansion is money. He says it would cost the state approximately $1 billion to make a serious dent in connectivity.
“When you go into a densely populated area, well, you might have thousands of people per mile that are connected to that fiber, which gives them a great return on investment,” Ostrowe says. “When you go out into rural Oklahoma, you may have one person per mile, and all of a sudden, it becomes very difficult to justify the capital expenditure to lay fiber.”
Oklahoma’s broadband expansion council is in the process of creating a new broadband map to determine which areas of the state have holes in broadband access.