301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org

8.7.23 – The Oklahoman

Your Turn: Mike Sanders, Guest columnist

Oklahoma stands on the cusp of broadband expansion which will inspire a generational change in how people live, work, and connect, with faster internet speeds and wider access to online resources transforming for the better every aspect of society.

Not since rural electrification in the 1930s and construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s has Oklahoma had such a significant opportunity to bring transformative improvement to our quality of life.

Not long ago, high-speed internet service was considered a luxury. Today, it has become a necessity, a part of our everyday lives.

The problem is that too many Oklahomans have been left out. According to the latest version of the FCC’s broadband map, more than 700,000 Oklahomans lack access to high-speed internet service. That’s almost 20 percent of our people.

The problem is not uniform throughout the state. Some counties, such as Oklahoma, Tulsa and Cleveland, have high-speed service available to more than 95 percent of their residents. In rural counties, the story is much different. For example, Harmon County in far southwest Oklahoma has broadband service for less than 30 percent of its residents.

The Oklahoma Broadband Office was created by the Legislature and governor last year with a singular mission: Expand access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet service throughout the state by June 2028.

Our challenge is great, but we will meet it. The office, along with oversight from the Broadband Governing Board and advice from the Broadband Expansion Council, will administer grant programs to achieve Oklahoma’s aggressive goal. The state currently expects to invest more than $1.3 billion in grant funding for broadband infrastructure and accessibility.

Stay tuned for announcements in the near future of funding for projects to be built by internet service providers to connect Oklahoma families, farms and businesses with high-speed internet service.

The initial projects will be funded by $382 million allocated to the office by the Legislature from the American Rescue Plan Act. Those projects will be followed by many more backed by $167 million in Capital Projects Funds and $797.4 million in BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment) Program funding. Additional funding will pay for education and training to help new users of the internet gain access and learn how to safely use it.

The office recently completed the “Let’s Get Digital: Oklahoma Broadband Tour.” We met with residents, health care professionals, business leaders, farmers and ranchers, tribal members and others in 19 cities and towns across the state to learn about local needs for high-speed internet service. We covered more than 6,000 miles and met with hundreds of people. Their input will help us craft an effective plan for broadband expansion.

Our Tribal Nations are essential partners in expanding broadband access in the state. We have held meetings with leaders of more than 30 of the state’s Tribal Governments and will soon complete consultations with all 39 tribes to help ensure full access to high-speed internet for Native American communities.

We are putting the right people, policies and procedures in place to ensure our mission is met in an open, fair and efficient manner. We will make no secret deals. Every dollar will be accounted for and spent exactly as intended.

Mike Sanders is the Oklahoma Broadband Office executive director.