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Exploring Access, Affordability, and Adequacy in Broadband Infrastructure

Infrastructure is defined as, “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” Buildings, roads, bridges, and utilities are the first examples that typically come to mind. 
 
But as broadband internet has emerged as an essential avenue for working, communicating, and participating in democracy, this notion of broadband has joined the infrastructure conversation. Wisconsin is one of several states who has pledged a portion of their American Rescue Plan Act funds to improving broadband infrastructure for their communities.  
 
To dive into the topic of broadband infrastructure, we were joined by Alyssa Kenney, Director of Digital Access at the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin. Once ARPA funds are allocated in Wisconsin, PSC has the responsibility for allocating the funds to broadband projects in the form of grants. Alyssa shared her thoughts on the importance and details of this process. 
 
Click here to listen to our full interview with Alyssa about how PSC is approaching awarding these broadband grants.  
 

Prioritizing the Un- and Under-Served 

When thinking about broadband infrastructure Alyssa refers to the three ‘A’s,’ the first being ‘access.’ Access refers to the existence of infrastructure to support broadband internet with at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. Whether or not a person has broadband in their home, do they have the ability to acquire it? 
 
As of summer 2021, PSC estimates that more than 700,000 Wisconsinites currently do not have access to broadband internet.  
 
The problem is a basic lesson in supply, demand, and ROI. There is simply not enough demand in many of these communities to justify the cost to private providers to build the infrastructure. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. If the provider makes the upfront investment, will the demand follow? For many providers, it’s not worth the risk.  
 
The state’s grant program prioritizes circumstances like this where the market has failed. PSC awards grants to help projects in un-and under-served areas reach commercial viability for the provider. For some projects, like a recent success in Chippewa Falls, newfound broadband access attracts people and businesses to the area and balances the marketplace scales for the long-term. The one-time grant solves the chicken-and-the-egg dilemma and creates a win for both the community and the provider.  
 
Procurement tip: build targeted RFPs that set your team up to reach your goals. PSC makes it clear in their grant application directions that priority will be given to proposals that address underserved and unserved areas. This lets them allot the funding to the areas where they can create the most impact. 
 

Strong Community Engagement is Key to Adoption 

When introducing broadband to an un- or underserved community, it is important to recognize that adoption will not happen overnight. Communities have adjusted to life without broadband. They are used to heading to the library to do homework or using landline phones to place calls.  
 
At a policy-level, this is where Alyssa’s second ‘A,’ affordability, comes into play. Once broadband access is provided, can the people of that community afford it? Are there any barriers to entry, like requiring a certain credit score or a bank account? Do people have the devices they need to access broadband at home? 
 
Still, affordability may not be enough to drive long-term impact. Providers and local jurisdictions need to work together to meet community members where they are and drive adoption. This community engagement piece is often the key to which grant projects are more successful than others.  
 
“We are encouraging grant applicants to include that community engagement and outreach piece in their proposals,” Alyssa said. “Proposals are scoring higher if they are showing that outreach – if they have plans to partner with a local library or senior center, for example.” 
 
These efforts require a deep understanding of the community and how it operates: for example, one successful community engagement initiative focused on outreach at the local dump. The town had no trash service, so it was the one place you could count on most households visiting on Saturday mornings. 
 
Procurement tip: take time to educate and be educated by your stakeholders – both the customer and the supplier. It's not just the broadband (or the asphalt or the water or the electricity) that will make a complex infrastructure project successful. Make sure your evaluation process also factors in the soft skills that drive impact and adoption. 
 

Looking Beyond a Transitional Solution 

Rather than putting a band-aid on broadband infrastructure, Wisconsin – along with many other state and local governments – sees ARPA funds as an opportunity to create a generational change for their communities. Rather than fixing broadband for the next three years, can we create a solution that serves the next 20?  
 
This is where the third ‘A,’ adequacy, comes into play. If there is access to broadband and it is affordable, is it adequate to meet my needs?  
 
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright spotlight on broadband adequacy. Many communities’ broadband infrastructure was built for one or two members of a household to be using it at a time, primarily for web browsing. Suddenly, two parents and multiple children were dependent on the internet for work and school every day. They needed to steam, upload, and download. As many of us saw in the early days of the pandemic, many people did not have adequate internet to meet their needs.  
 
There are several lessons here, one being that the ‘adequacy’ metric can change fast.  
 
A short-term, absolutely worthwhile fix is to build broadband infrastructure to meet current demand. But, Alyssa and PSC challenge us to consider the future demands that will be placed on broadband. We may not know exactly what they might be, but it is worthwhile to build an infrastructure that can accommodate changes in demand over-time.  
 
Procurement tip: in best-value solicitations, ask bidders to speak to their ability to meet changing demands over time. While this may not be the deciding factor, this knowledge will help your team make the most informed decision.  
 

How is your jurisdiction approaching infrastructure projects?  

We want to hear about it! If your state is using ARPA funds for infrastructure, we’d love to hear how it’s going. Submit your story to be featured in a future Decisions That Matter episode or blog post.  
 
 

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