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What's New in Digital Equity: Meet the Newest Muni Broadband Advocacy Group

Plus, both the FCC and the NTIA are continuing to make substantial investments in broadband connectivity work across the country, senators introduce the Rural Broadband Protection Act, and much more.

North American city lights as seen from space at night.
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A group of municipal officials have formed a new advocacy group for municipal broadband in the United States, dubbed the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB). The formation of the group was announced at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022, held this past week in Houston.

The formation of the group comes as broadband connectivity is receiving unprecedented support in the U.S., both in terms of federal funding coming down to state and local government, as well as in how much attention the issue is receiving from society writ large, from universities to the private sector and more. Indeed, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is ongoing support to ensure that the entire country has effective access to the Internet at home.

With this in mind, the AAPB has formed to advocate on behalf of municipal broadband networks.

"For decades, municipal networks have achieved success across the country. Now, with AAPB, we have a clear unified voice," the group noted on its new website. "We work collaboratively with communities, policymakers, service providers and other industry groups to advance high-speed broadband deployments in the United States."

Part of the group's work aims to spread muni broadband success stories to decision-makers to balance cautionary stories. And so far, the group has been met with early support, noting on Twitter that in the 24 hours since it was announced, it has raised more than $100,000 from donors.

Founding members of the new group include Highland Communication Services in Illinois; Traverse City Light and Power in Michigan; Kitsap PUD in Washington; Ridgefield Economic and Community Development Commission in Connecticut; and UTOPIA Fiber in Utah.

Only local governments and government employees are eligible to be voting members in the group. Interested parties can find information about joining on the group's website. (Zack Quaintance)

FCC ANNOUNCES MORE FUNDING FOR BROADBAND THROUGH RDOF, ECF


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced it is ready to authorize almost $200 million in funding through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Marking the ninth round of funding in the program, it is expected to support broadband deployments in 26 states and the Northern Mariana Islands, bringing service to over 230,000 locations. The program started in July 2021, and the most recent round of funding was announced in March 2022.

The FCC has also been working in recent months to strengthen oversight of the RDOF and other programs, through the establishment of the Rural Broadband Accountability Plan, sending letters to applicants to reduce waste, conducting a comprehensive review of all winning bidders and denying waivers for winning bidders that have foregone certain responsibilities to carry out their bids.

In other FCC news, the agency announced a separate commitment of almost $39 million in the 14th wave of Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program support. As Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel stated in the announcement, this fund has helped connect over 12.5 million kids. The latest round will support 140 schools, 12 libraries and one consortium.

The third application window, opened last week, is open for schools and libraries to apply until May 13, 2022. In this window, the FCC will likely award at least $1 billion through the ECF to help schools and libraries purchase equipment and services for the 2022-2023 school year. More details on these applications can be found on the ECF website. (Julia Edinger)

NTIA TO INVEST $77M IN TRIBAL COMMUNITY CONNECTIVITY


The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has announced 19 new grants totaling nearly $77 million as part of its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.

The grants are going to communities in 10 states, the list of which is Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Washington. The money will go toward projects aimed at Internet use in ways that will improve health care, employment, education and other social service needs in tribal areas. For example, one grant in the Gila River Indian Community — located in Arizona, just outside Phoenix — will support telehealth expansion, distance learning and other digital inclusion work. Another recent example of one of these grants saw $500,000 going to build out high-speed Internet infrastructure in Healy Lake Village in Fairbanks, Alaska.

This is all part of an ongoing effort that has now seen a total of 34 awards totaling roughly $83 million to connect tribal communities. (Zack Quaintance)

INTERNET PROVIDERS DROP CHALLENGE TO CALIFORNIA'S NET NEUTRALITY LAW


Internet service providers this week dropped a challenge to California's net neutrality law, according to industry reports. Dubbed the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018, the law went into effect after the FCC eliminated similar net neutrality rules at the federal level. In short, the law stops Internet providers from blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of Internet.

The motion to withdraw the challenge was filed Wednesday in U.S. district court. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the FCC remains gridlocked along party lines with two commissioners being Republican and two being Democrats. President Biden has nominated Gigi Sohn — a net neutrality supporter — to the vacant fifth FCC commissioner spot, but Sohn's nomination continues to linger in the U.S. Senate. California is one of several states that has enacted its own net neutrality laws, with neighboring Oregon and also Washington having done so as well. (Zack Quaintance)

RURAL BROADBAND PROTECTION ACT INTRODUCED IN THE SENATE


This week, the Rural Broadband Protection Act (S.4126) was introduced by Senators Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. The bipartisan bill would entail a more comprehensive vetting process for providers looking to take part in the FCC’s high-cost programs, which provide carriers funding to bring service to rural areas.

Rural America faces unique challenges regarding broadband, forcing stakeholders to implement creative solutions and look to partnerships to expand access. This bill, endorsed by NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, would help ensure that funding goes to those companies that have demonstrated deployment in areas that may be more difficult to serve, like rural communities.

“This bipartisan legislation will help Americans connect to work, school, health care and business opportunities by ensuring the companies that apply for federal funding to build out broadband infrastructure can get the job done," said Klobuchar in the announcement. (Julia Edinger)

WASHINGTON TO HOLD DIGITAL EQUITY LISTENING SESSIONS NEXT WEEK


The Washington State Office of Equity and the State Broadband Office will hold community listening sessions on May 10 and 11 to improve Internet access in the state.

With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offering historic investments in digital equity, the state has increased its goal to get all Washington residents access to high-speed broadband by 2028. To achieve this goal, the state has taken legislative action. This led the two offices to partner to convene a Digital Equity Forum, which will meet through October 2022 and will use listening sessions to bring in unique perspectives on access, affordability and digital literacy.

More information on the Digital Equity Forum and the listening sessions, including the questions that will be centered on in the sessions, can be found on the Washington State Department of Commerce website. (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.