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What’s New in Civic Tech: Meet Biden’s FCC Commissioner Picks

Plus, the USDA plans to make $1.15 billion available to efforts that aim to bolster rural access to high-speed Internet; Montana makes a move to create its own statewide broadband map; and more.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
President Joe Biden has designated Jessica Rosenworcel as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, making her the first woman to serve in the role.

In addition, the Biden administration also announced this week its intention to nominate Gigi Sohn as an FCC commissioner. These moves potentially bring the FCC board to a full five positions, with the president’s party holding a 3-2 majority, as has been the case during both the Obama and Trump presidencies.

Rosenworcel has served as acting chair of the FCC dating back to Biden taking office in January, and this move now makes her position permanent. Sohn, meanwhile, previously served as an FCC official during the Obama presidency, and is well-known in the space as a consumer advocate as it applies to broadband and other issues.

Biden is able to make Rosenworcel the chair of the FCC immediately. Rosenworcel’s term, however, has expired, meaning she must go through a new nomination process to continue in the post past January. Sohn must also be confirmed by the Senate, and if that happens, Sohn will become the first openly LGBTQ+ commissioner for the FCC.

These moves come after a group of 25 senators wrote Biden a letter in September, urging him to make Rosenworcel chair as well as to fill the vacant seat. For months the FCC has operated with just four commissioners, split evenly down party lines. At stake is the potential re-codification of net neutrality, which was rolled back during the Trump presidency under a Republican majority board chaired by Ajit Pai, who has since departed the FCC.

In its press release announcing the moves, the Biden administration praised Rosenworcel’s support for growing civic support of digital equity, writing, “During her time at the agency, she has worked to promote greater opportunity, accessibility, and affordability in our communications services in order to ensure that all Americans get a fair shot at 21st century success. From fighting to protect an open internet, to ensuring broadband access for students caught in the Homework Gap through the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, to making sure that households struggling to afford internet service stay connected through the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, she has been a champion for connectivity for all.” (Zack Quaintance)

USDA TO PROVIDE UP TO $1.5 MILLION FOR RURAL BROADBAND


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced a major funding opportunity to bolster rural broadband efforts through the ReConnect Program. The department will accept applications for up to $1.15 billion in grants and loans starting on Nov. 24.

For applicants to be eligible, they must serve an area with specific broadband service speeds: 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed; and the facilities they commit to build must be capable of providing broadband at 100 Mbps upload and download speeds to every location in the area. Projects in low-density rural areas with low download and upload speeds (25 Mbps and 3 Mbps, respectively) will be prioritized.

This project is paired with a $50 million investment in the department’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which offers grants to increase access to services through telecommunications. This could include broadband facilities, video equipment or a variety of other equipment.

Both of these efforts aim to connect people in rural areas with the tools they need to participate in the digital services of the modern economy. Those interested in learning more about USDA’s ReConnect Program and eligibility requirements can do so on USDA’s website. (Julia Edinger)

THIS WEEK IN INTERESTING MAPS...


Civic tech is a rapidly evolving field, one with a diverse set of interests that tend to change in accordance with the priorities of government and nonprofit organizations.

There is, however, one constant — civic technologists are good at making very cool maps. It’s hard to imagine the world of civic tech without data visualizations, and this week — with Halloween upon us — we have a couple of maps that lean toward the macabre.

One such effort is a map of Scotland’s gruesome history of witch hunts, created by technologists and researchers at that country’s University of Edinburgh.

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, another map uses coroners’ records that date back to the 1300s to visualize murders in medieval London. This work comes to us from the Violence Research Centre at Cambridge University, and it shows the details of 142 murders that happened from 1300 to 1340, drawing from coroners’ rolls of that era.

More information about both of these maps is available through Bloomberg’s CityLab. (Zack Quaintance)

MONTANA REQUESTS INFO ON BROADBAND MAPPING PLATFORM FOR CONNECTMT ACT PROGRAM


Also on the subject of maps, the state of Montana is moving towards a broadband map.

As part of the ConnectMT Act program, the state of Montana is now requesting information on a new mapping platform. The Department of Administration has released a Request for Information to support this program.

The $275 million program was established this year through the passing of SB 297 in conjunction with HB 632. The map was created to determine which parts of Montana are served or unserved areas in the effort to deploy broadband throughout the state.

The broadband map will be publicly available when it is published. The state’s broadband program manager, Chad Rupe, said in the announcement that the public is encouraged to monitor the website for announcements as the program develops. (Julia Edinger)

BLOOMINGTON AWARDS 2021 DIGITAL EQUITY GRANTS TO LOCAL NONPROFITS


The city of Bloomington, Ind., Information and Technology Services Department’s Digital Equity Grants program has announced the recipients of the 2021 round of grants to nine local nonprofit organizations to combat the digital divide, an increase from the six nonprofits that received grants in 2020.

“We were excited to see a broader applicant pool, comprising organizations that grapple with the challenges identified in our digital equity strategic plan,” said Information and Technology Services Director Rick Dietz in the announcement.

The program is funded through Mayor John Hamilton’s Recover Forward initiative. This year, the recipients will receive a total of $50,000, a $15,000 increase in funding from last year. Each recipient will be using the funding to support a program or project aimed at addressing digital equity. This can be done through increasing access to broadband or Internet-enabled devices, or by teaching digital skills.

For example, the nonprofit organization Courage to Change Sober Living will purchase laptops and Internet with the funding received so that residents can access social services, apply for jobs, attend meetings and more. (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.