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What’s New in Digital Equity: GAO Calls for National Digital Inclusion Strategy

Plus, the FCC has launched a new help center with tutorials for broadband data collection; a new USDR report details experience of applying for child-care benefits; Minnesota to invest $200 million in rural broadband; and more.

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The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) — which is the leading accountability and audit organization within the federal government — has called for a national strategy that would guide efforts to close the digital divide.

This determination — which was detailed in a report this week, titled Broadband: National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide — comes amid a massive uptick in support at all levels of government for digital inclusion work. After the pandemic made clear how important it is to have high-speed Internet at home in order to participate in modern society, support for this work swelled. And while the main conclusion of the report pertains to the federal government, there’s probably a lesson to be had in here for states and even cities.

“Federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping, with more than 100 programs administered by 15 agencies,” authors of the report wrote. The report continues, “Despite numerous programs and federal investment of $44 billion from 2015 through 2020, millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”

Lack of broadband availability or affordability tend to disproportionately affect communities that are underserved, which is a problem all across the country that states and cities are dealing with, be it minority communities or communities with many rural areas. The federal government is in the process of distributing an unprecedented amount of money aimed at supporting broadband connectivity directly to states.

At the same time, many other organizations and agencies within government are finding digital inclusion work increasingly central to their own missions, from housing authorities to health departments to school districts. Having a unified city-wide, state-wide, or even regional strategy or effort can help not only obtain this funding, but determine the areas most in need, which should be at the top of lists for where the money should ultimately go.

In terms of specifics, the new GAO report offers three recommendations: that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) identify potential limitations or constraints for aligning the many digital inclusion programs; that the NTIA develop legislative proposals to address these limitations where appropriate; and that the president develop and implement a national broadband strategy.

“NTIA agreed with our recommendations,” the report noted. “The Executive Office of the President did not take a position on our recommendation.”

The report was compiled after GAO analyzed broadband programs and interviewed 50 stakeholders, a group that also included officials at the local level. (Zack Quaintance)

FCC’S NEW ONLINE HELP CENTER OFFERS BROADBAND DATA RESOURCES


This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the launch of its online help center to support those filing broadband availability data when the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) filing window opens on June 30. The help center features resources related to Form 477, video tutorials and more. The help center will provide information for users, ranging from how to use the census geocoder to how to use the QGIS platform to work with GIS data.

“These new filer resources help pave the way for the FCC to begin accepting more precise and accurate availability data through the Broadband Data Collection,” Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, said in the announcement.

The video tutorials explain the information and data that filers must submit using the new BDC system. Facilities-based providers of broadband service must submit their data through the BDC by Sept. 1. The new help center aims to support those in need of technical assistance when filing begins later this month. More resources will be added in the future. (Julia Edinger)

USDR REPORT ON THE USER EXPERIENCE OF CHILD-CARE BENEFITS APPLICATIONS


United States Digital Response (USDR) released a comprehensive report last week that explores the experiences of those applying for child-care benefits. The report was created through 27 interviews with families across the nation that applied for benefits in 2020 and 2021. The goal is to help better understand and improve the application process for a more equitable user experience. This report follows a trend of states working to improve accessibility through user-centered design.

USDR’s report maps the various phases of different experiences, offers actionable recommendations and provides resources for government agencies and others looking to improve the design of such processes. It also identifies trends in how families come to interact with these assistive resources — for example, a change in a family’s financial situation was a common reason for seeking assistance. The report identifies effective, replicable practices like Texas’s provider search engine tool, the Texas Child Care Availability Portal. (Julia Edinger)

MINNESOTA AG BILL SENDS $200M TO RURAL BROADBAND EFFORTS


A recently signed agriculture bill in Minnesota has more than $200 million dedicated to the state’s efforts to support rural broadband, Minnesota officials have announced. In addition to the money, the bill will establish a pilot program to help connect areas with lower population densities.

More information about the bill can be found on the Minnesota Legislature’s website. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law last week. (Zack Quaintance)

ARKANSAS ELECTRIC CO-OPS FORM DIAMOND STATE NETWORKS


More than a dozen electric co-ops in Arkansas have teamed up to form Diamond State Networks, a unified wholesale broadband provider that covers 64 percent of the state’s geographic area and has the potential to serve as many as 600,000 customers.

All told, this newly unified Diamond State Networks has more than 50,000 miles of fiber lines.

“The new network will provide fiber broadband users with the backing of hundreds of years of combined experience in providing Arkansans with vital utility services,” officials noted in a statement.

In addition to offering wholesale connectivity to other service providers through the network, other plans call for eventual infrastructure expansion. This announcement speaks to a pair of trends emerging in the broadband space in recent years: electric co-ops helping get people — especially those in rural areas — connected, and regional stakeholders uniting in order to have a bigger impact and a bigger reach. (Zack Quaintance)

CONNECTALL PILOT LAUNCHES WITH $10 MILLION FOR RURAL COMMUNITIES


This year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the launch of the $1 billion ConnectALL initiative, an effort to connect all New Yorkers to high-speed Internet. Last week, a four-county model project was announced.

Through this pilot initiative, an investment of $10 million will help to create a bridge between large data centers and homes, especially those in rural areas. This initiative will impact the village of Sherburne, the town of Nichols, the town of Diana and the town of Pitcairn. The effort will be a collaborative one between the state government and nonprofit organizations.

More information can be found on the ConnectALL website. (Julia Edinger)

VERMONT COMMUNITIES BAND TOGETHER FOR GOOGLE FIBER DEAL


Finally, in other unified efforts news, two groups of communities are working on a deal that would bring Google Fiber’s high-speed Internet to their region, local news reports.

Specifically, the deal is aimed at helping to connect residents of Vermont’s most underserved areas. A total of 31 communities are involved in this effort, bonded as they are through a Vermont law that allows them to form communications union districts in the service of pooling resources to pursue better fiber-optic service.

Discussions with Google Fiber first began in September, and if all goes as planned, construction on the new infrastructure could begin later this year. (Zack Quaintance)
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.