Last year, Maine utility regulators made it easier for municipal-owned high-speed internet providers to string cables along utility poles. That might not sound like a big deal, but utility pole access is a surprisingly contentious issue. Broadband providers have long complained that it can take months or years to gain access to utility poles controlled by traditional telcos, slowing down or halting efforts to expand broadband competition. “Pole attachments, as wonky as they are, were a major regulatory hurdle for small [internet service providers] and communities to figure out and deal with,” Peggy Schaffer, cochair of the Maine Broadband Coalition, told Maine Public Radio last year. “It became an unpredictable, expensive process to attach to poles.”
Maine’s decision to reduce barriers to utility pole access highlights the important role states play in shaping the future of broadband. Advocacy groups and the media tend to focus on the Federal Communications Commission, but many decisions that influence the availability of high-speed internet connections are made at the state, or even local, level.
To help illustrate those decisions, the Pew Charitable Trusts Wednesday launched the State Broadband Policy Explorer. You can use it to find out which agency in your state, if any, funds programs to expand broadband access in rural areas, check whether your state has laws restricting cities from building their own “municipal broadband” networks, or just find out how your state defines “broadband.” You can view a list of policies in your state and filter them by category, year, or both.
The tool doesn’t yet have a category for net neutrality, a hot-button state-level issue after the FCC repealed federal net neutrality rules in 2017. But you can find some related laws in categories like “competition and regulation” and “infrastructure access.”
Each entry provides a summary of relevant policy as well as links to find the full text. “We wanted to make it accessible to everyone from a legislative staffer to your Aunt Betty who’s running a community broadband effort on an island in Maine,” says Kathryn de Wit, a manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pew’s State Broadband Policy Explorer isn’t the only tool that lets you find state broadband policy. The National Regulatory Research Institute tracks state-level net neutrality laws and proposals, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance hosts a state-by-state guide to municipal broadband policy. But the goal of Pew’s State Broadband Policy Explorer is to provide a one-stop shop for state-level broadband research.
The tool grew out of Pew’s Broadband Research Initiative, which researches policy issues like the economic impact of broadband access and expanding broadband in rural and low-income communities. “We realized as we were doing the research to get an idea of what policy looks like across the country that there really wasn’t any other kind of tool that gets everything about broadband policy in one place,” de Wit says.