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What's New in Digital Equity: Internet Access Impacts COVID-19 Deaths

Plus, the FCC has opened an inquiry seeking public comment on what constitutes digital discrimination, New York state undertakes major effort to enroll eligible families in federal broadband programs, and more.

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You may have noticed this column has a new name, What’s New in Digital Equity. It’s a change that’s been coming for some time. For the past five years, this feature has covered civic tech news. In that same time, civic tech in the U.S. has increasingly focused on equity, with major actors in the space putting the work at the forefront while government agencies strive to connect everyone they serve. To that end, we’ve renamed our weekly feature to reflect the evolving nature of our coverage. This column will still focus on civic tech, but with a leading emphasis on digital inclusion and digital equity.

Read our March magazine feature about digital equity and cities here!


INTERNET ACCESS FACTORS INTO COVID-19 DEATH RATE


Whether someone has access to the Internet is one of the factors in the COVID-19 death rate, a new report has found.

The report — published this month by researchers at the University of Chicago in JAMA Network Open, a journal published by the American Medical Association — found that lack of Internet access was consistently one of the factors connected with higher risk of death due to COVID-19 in the United States. This connection held even when other factors, such as income and education, were controlled by the research team.

Geographical location also didn't play a part in the relationship between lack of Internet access and a higher risk of death due to COVID-19. Residents of rural areas with no broadband saw the same impact as urban residents who lacked Internet in areas where infrastructure is present. This finding speaks to the ongoing importance of both wiring rural communities for broadband and making high-speed Internet accessible and affordable in urban communities that have already been wired.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a surge of support for digital inclusion and digital equity, ranging from private companies wanting to donate devices to schools to giant pieces of legislation from the federal government designating unprecedented amounts of money to broadband access and adoption. Experts say that when the pandemic forced the vast majority of the country to isolate and quarantine at home, the importance of digital inclusion was made evident in many ways that escaped people before the pandemic happened.

What has resulted from all of this is the realization that the U.S. must now treat high-speed Internet as a utility similar to water and electricity. (Zack Quaintance)

NEW YORK STATE HELPS RESIDENTS ACCESS AFFORDABLE CONNECTIVITY PROGRAM


As New York state continues to help eligible low-income residents sign up for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, officials there report that more than 100,000 new families have enrolled in the initiative. The program provides up to $30 a month for low-income families to put toward Internet service.

This work to help residents benefit from the program is a multi-agency outreach effort, led by the New York State Department of Public Service. Other agencies involved in the initiative are the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Housing and Community Renewal, the Office of Children and Family Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Motor Vehicles and Empire State Development.

So far, more than 715,000 total households in New York state are receiving the monthly subsidy. This number reflects a 40 percent enrollment rate for the estimated number of eligible households — an increase of more than 10 percent since the campaign began in January. The total amount of annual subsidies is now more than $250 million, with those having just joined receiving about $36 million of that total.

Affordability is a key part of digital inclusion work, with experts noting that living near the best broadband infrastructure in the world is relatively meaningless if most households can't afford it. The outreach work in New York varies by agency, but some of the efforts include directing social services agencies to share related info with clients, collaborating with nonprofit housing partners and teaming with regional economic development councils. (Julia Edinger)

FCC WANTS INQUIRY SEEKING PUBLIC COMMENT ON DIGITAL DISCRIMINATION


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously this week for an inquiry to seek public comment on how to define digital discrimination as well as on what rules they should adopt to combat it and ensure equal access to broadband.

"The notice of inquiry starts the process of establishing a shared understanding of the harms experienced by historically excluded and marginalized communities, with the intent of making meaningful policy reforms and systems improvements," FCC officials wrote in a press release.

Specifically, the inquiry wants to know how the FCC might implement provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that would codify a requirement for the commission to combat digital discrimination and promote equal access to broadband. Additional questions involve what data the FCC rely on in this area as well as how it should revise processes around accepting digital discrimination complaints.

This vote comes after the FCC was tasked with combating discrimination and digital redlining by the aforementioned infrastructure act, which allocated $65 billion to boost broadband connectivity and another $2.75 billion for other digital equity work.

Also at this week's meeting, the FCC tackled other digital inclusion-adjacent issues, including input over costs for resolving disputes about pole replacements and the authorization of 5,223 winning bids for support via the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. (Quaintance)

NDIA SUBMITS COMMENTS TO FCC ON CONSUMER BROADBAND LABELS


The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) recently submitted comments to the FCC about consumer broadband labels, underlining that much information from service providers is currently not readily available — from the amount of monthly fees added to customers’ bills to the exact numbers for Internet speeds.

As required by Section 60504 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Internet service providers are to provide consumer labels for their plans. The FCC has been seeking comment related to these labels since January.

NDIA’s comments recommend enforcement of label obligations, public access to label data and availability of “bottom line” numbers for consumer comparisons. Regarding the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), NDIA underlines the need for providers that are ACP participants to disclose that information. Specifically, NDIA recommends creating an “ACP Equity Badge” to add to labels, with a link to an informational FCC page. The full comments can be found on NDIA’s website. (Edinger)

CHECK OUT THIS DIGITAL EQUITY POLICY CHEAT SHEET


The NDIA has rolled out a new Digital Equity Policy Cheat Sheet, which serves as a handy guide to the many (many!) acronyms in the digital inclusion space.

In addition to being an easy reference for what the various combinations of letters mean, the sheet also has readily accessible information such as how much funding is coming from which plans, who established various digital equity funding mechanisms, and more. Interested parties can find the cheat sheet on the NDIA's website, along with digital inclusion policy priorities for the year.

As a reminder, the NDIA also has a new digital inclusion coalition guidebook, published last month, and the group continues to seek information about new and existing coalitions that share its mission. (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.