Trends in State BEAD Plans: The Measurement Problem
In their Five-Year Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) plans, states’ strategies for achieving digital inclusion provide an early indication of their approach to the central goal of BEAD: to get all residents meaningfully, not just nominally, connected. Importantly, getting over the hump here is by not only ensuring accurate data collection but first figuring out what data to collect and how to collect it—and even how to best illustrate it—since basic location mapping can no longer capture every aspect of the modern broadband landscape. Every successful policy program hinges on good data, but in under-charted territory like the inclusion landscape, first ascertaining what data to collect can be as important—and difficult—as ensuring data accuracy itself.
The problem is that the state of digital inclusion is no longer a binary yes/no question of deployment that can be neatly mapped out. Inclusion today is complicated, multifaceted, and a necessarily iterative process as the landscape changes. It’s the product of multiple factors, including networks’ reach, how effectively reasons for non-adoption are addressed, device and digital literacy provision, and the availability of assistance to accessing these resources.
Even mapping deployment alone has always been complicated. The new FCC maps are an improvement on, but not a perfect fix of, the old ones’ flaws: Many states are already questioning how to tackle inconsistencies between their own maps and the FCC’s when allocating funds.
The key mandate of the BEAD program is for states to close all coverage gaps, which will take a combination of different technologies, and part of this comes down to simple number crunching to determine what technologies to use. Montana, for example, calculates the projected outcomes of different scenarios: Prioritizing fiber above all else leaves the largest number of locations unserved, and prioritizing obtaining some form of broadband for everyone means less fiber to go around. While calculating cost scenarios like this is a good way to lay out major tradeoffs, it’s all only as accurate as the data on which it’s based. And while some decisions may seem self-evident—maximizing the number of connected households using a mix of available technologies is the most important—others, like the types of technologies appropriate for different areas, may be less easily determined through simple scenario charting.
The need for data that represents the multi-dimensional nature of digital inclusion and the relationship between various factors create more room for confusion, which states are working through in their own ways. Traditional location mapping is not completely obsolete if it better integrates the multifaceted nature of digital inclusion. Delaware, for example, is working to address the relationship between broadband availability and other indicators of social advantage by building a mapping tool that overlays Social Vulnerability indicators (which are factors including housing, education, disability, race, and device access) with a map showing the location of community anchor institutions. This is a step closer to reality than one-dimensional maps and will inform allocation decisions by contextualizing the broadband needs of these institutions within the broader needs of their constituents.
Population surveys that solicit self-reported data are another important tool: Hawaii ran a 2021 survey on digital literacy and readiness across the state to better understand the specific equity needs of its constituents. The survey grouped residents into categories ranging from the least to most digitally prepared, which can inform necessary interventions to stimulate adoption. New York conducted surveys among its population on the quality and price of households’ Internet connections, their preferred online activities, and proficiency and comfort in digital use. It also surveyed ISPs for details about their footprints, hiring needs, and their plans and experiences providing and disseminating information about low-cost plans, such as those tied to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
Beyond specific plans for data collection, even the ways states write about the topic can provide early insight into their views of how and when to tackle digital inclusion. Alaska, for example, initially frames inclusion as a series of discrete stages: The state believes that a combination of completing deployment, having inclusion strategies in place to ensure affordability, and advancing digital literacy to close usage gaps will result in the full achievement of digital equity. While there is no one specific way to address digital inclusion—in fact, the overarching principle that efforts be targeted to their audiences means that no two approaches should look the same—states do need to approach inclusion through an iterative, all-hands-on-deck process that adjusts as the data and circumstances change. Pennsylvania emphasizes this fact by citing the need for continued collaboration between states and stakeholders—including providers, state governments, and other institutions—in an ongoing process to fine-tune existing inclusion data.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from states’ Five-Year Plans, particularly their early forays into understanding and mapping the state of digital equity, it is that there is not yet one best line of attack or single tried-and-true method. Instead, states will need to use data, their own constituents, and knowledgeable stakeholders to design approaches that leave space for changes in different circumstances. In these early stages, states can best help each other and themselves by being open and transparent about their intended processes, both to make room for constituents’ critiques and so that other states are free to adopt the best of their ideas and pass them along.