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After Major Progress in 2023, Digital Equity Looks Ahead

Post-pandemic federal funding for digital equity and broadband initiatives has pushed connectivity work forward exponentially. As the new year approaches, experts ask: How do we keep this going?

A digital dome over a neighborhood at night
Adobe Stock
A record-setting number of digital equity practitioners gathered in March, filling a packed ballroom in a San Antonio hotel. They ranged from teachers to librarians to policy wonks to nonprofit volunteers. A presidential cabinet official — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo — even made an unannounced visit. The crowd had come for Net Inclusion, the country’s pre-eminent digital equity event, more than doubling the previous record of attendees for the event, set in 2022.

Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, took the stage. Siefer is one of the pioneers of digital equity work in this country, having worked on the issue for decades, long before it was supported by federal funding. Siefer was doing this before most people were even using the term “digital equity.” On stage at Net Inclusion, she praised the historic size of crowd, the unprecedented amount of financial support and the increasing understanding of the issue’s importance. Then she asked a question: “How do we keep this going?”

And that’s a new question that entered the digital equity and broadband space in 2023. The past three years have been the most productive ever for getting more Americans connected to our digital society. More people now have high-speed Internet in their homes, new devices in their hands to access that Internet and the training for the skills to use it. Now, attention is turning toward how to sustain this progress.

Perhaps the most pressing specific issue in 2023 became how to extend the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal benefit that has connected unserved residents and also shaped many funding decisions at the state level. That program provides households with a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service, and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. Some experts have estimated that the program’s current funding will run dry as soon as 2024. The federal government continues to put money toward broadband in other ways, but most advocates say that money will be most effective when also supplemented by the continuation of the ACP.

Continuing the ACP, however, was not the only future-facing issue that shaped this area in 2023. State governments continued to add new digital equity-specific jobs. These positions tend to have names that vary between states, but the mandate is mostly shared: build digital equity programs that last, working to narrow the digital divide for years to come. The folks filling these positions are as varied as the titles, coming from public libraries, nonprofits, academia or other parts of state government. So, while the federal money may stop flowing at some point, many states will have full-time digital equity leaders in place internally when it does.

Another development was a new cooperative working relationship between digital equity advocates, the public sector and some telecommunications companies. That latter group hasn’t always been a willing partner in digital equity. Two of the largest sponsors of the Net Inclusion event in 2023 were Comcast and Verizon. Organizers said afterward that at a different time, their support would have been surprising, if not altogether unlikely. And their support through the year went beyond just sponsoring Net Inclusion. Those companies — as well as AT&T — have started to work with advocates while also putting money toward grants, digital navigator programs and other related initiatives. Not all Internet service providers are equally supportive of the space, but the fact that some of the biggest names are investing in it represents major progress.

Toward the end of the year there was also a major political development that affected broadband and digital equity. The U.S. Senate confirmed President Biden’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee, Anna Gomez. This wrapped up a long stalemate, giving the Democrats a majority on the FCC. As a result, the commission started the process of restoring net neutrality rules — which advocates say prevent telecommunications companies from providing different speeds to different sites and services — with Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel directly connecting the restoration of those protections to digital equity. If the rules are reinstated, it will happen in 2024.

Click here to read the rest of our 2023 Year in Review coverage.

This story originally appeared in the December issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.


Digital EquityBroadband
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.