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What's New in Civic Tech: A Federal Digital Literacy Bill

Plus, the public comment period is now open for the broadband programs within the new infrastructure bill; Maine has named the first leader for its broadband authority; and a New Jersey city works on digital inclusion.

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The U.S. Congress has introduced a new bill that seeks to create a digital literacy and equity commission.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., introduced the Digital Literacy and Equity Commission Act this week, announcing it via a press release. In that release, Lawrence notes that currently there is no commonly used metric to measure digital literacy. Part of the proposed commission's job would be to not only assess digital literacy in the U.S., but to suggest a way to measure it moving forward. Also on the agenda would be promoting interagency cooperation as it applies to digital literacy.

“As a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we're investing billions to expand access to broadband. Laying down the fiber is a strong first step to connect Americans around the country, but this effort won’t be as effective if people can’t use the online tools they’ve been given,” Lawrence said in a statement.

This new commission would be chaired by the secretary of education and the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). If passed, the bill would also require a report to Congress that would offer recommendations for how to improve digital literacy throughout the U.S. Finally, the new bill also notes that chief among the commission's concerns would be addressing digital equity by focusing on literacy within low-income and disadvantage areas, which have long found themselves on the wrong end of the digital divide.

Digital literacy has become an increasing focus of those who work on digital equity and digital inclusion. Along with fostering access to the Internet and to devices needed to access it, digital literacy represents a pillar of digital inclusion work. After the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, support has flowed into government from the private sector, philanthropies and nonprofit groups for this work. In fact, in cities across the country efforts have been made to help families with school children in particular get Internet access at home.

Digital literacy — which is also being increasingly branded as digital skills training by advocates — involves helping folks who are now connected to the Internet learn how to use it in meaningful ways. It varies by individual on an almost granular level, but this sort of training ranges from helping folks setup email addresses to teaching them how to use Zoom in order to access telehealth.

The introduction of this new bill represents continued momentum at the federal level to support digital inclusion work across the U.S. To date, the most prominent instance of this is the $2.75 billion of digital inclusion funding already included in the infrastructure bill. Experts have described this investment as historic, noting that it will fall to states, cities and community groups to convey exactly where that money needs to go next.

A digital literacy commission would be a natural extension of this investment, doing the work of benchmarking the progress that's being made in the wake of this funding while helping to pinpoint continued areas of need for any potential future digital inclusion support at the federal level. (Zack Quaintance)

NTIA REQUESTS PUBLIC COMMENT ON FEDERAL BROADBAND PROGRAMS


The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will be open for public comment on information and policy related to the broadband grant programs that will be funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

The specific programs being discussed are the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program; the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program; and the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program. NTIA plans to release an additional request for comment addressing the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.

Comments can be submitted online using regulations.gov by the Feb. 4 deadline, and all submitted comments will be posted publicly. NTIA is also hosting a series of public virtual listening sessions regarding the programs funded by the IIJA. (Julia Edinger)

MAINE CONFIRMS FIRST PRESIDENT OF STATE'S CONNECTIVITY AUTHORITY


Maine has sworn in Andrew Butcher as the first president of the Maine Connectivity Authority.

State officials announced Butcher's nomination to the role in October 2021, following the July 2021 confirmation of the nominees for the authority's seven-member board.

Butcher, unanimously confirmed by the Maine state Senate, had previously served as the leader of the Maine Broadband Coalition, which represents organizations, communities and other Internet users in efforts to expand broadband access. In addition, as director of innovation and resilience for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, Butcher took part in passing a 2020 bond proposal that raised $14 million for broadband expansion in the state.

Maine's previous work to expand broadband access includes funding from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan and the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund, as well as an effort to put mobile hot spots and Internet-enabled devices in schools. Additionally, a broadband mapping initiative in the state aims to facilitate broadband expansion efforts to unserved and underserved areas. (Julia Edinger)

CITY HALL TEAMS WITH JERSEY CITY HOUSING AUTHORITY TO BRIDGE DIGITAL DIVIDE


The Jersey City, N.J., mayor's office and the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA) have teamed up to announce a new broadband expansion initiative. In partnership with the Internet service provider Andrena, the initiative aims to expand access through public housing developments with discounted Internet infrastructure and services — starting at $20 per month. This initiative will pair with the subsidies available through the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

“The digital surge during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work and educate, and it has put an urgency on the need to close the digital divide,” said Mayor Steven Fulop in the announcement.

Another key component of combating the digital divide is providing residents with the information they need, which JCHA and Andrena have delivered on by offering weekly community events to help Berry Gardens residents sign up for service, connect devices and obtain available Internet subsidies. The city also launched a public outreach campaign to educate residents on the resources available to them.

The program has gone live at the Berry Gardens senior housing development, and in the coming months, it will launch in Booker T. Washington, Curries Woods and Marion Gardens communities. (Julia Edinger)
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.