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What’s New in Digital Equity: Millions Continue Flowing for Broadband

At both the state and federal levels of government, millions of dollars in new funding continue to be made available for broadband projects across the U.S. Plus, advocacy groups release new guidance resources for the work.

New funding for broadband continued flowing this week with government agencies at both the state and federal levels making significant announcements. At the highest level of government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced $37 million in additional Emergency Connectivity Fund money, which will go to support libraries and schools.

This marks the 13th release of monies from that fund, and it will bring support to 170 schools, 30 libraries, and four consortia in a list of states that includes Alaska, Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Texas. As we’ve noted in previous columns, a new window for applications for even more Emergency Connectivity Fund money via the FCC is slated to open on April 28 and remain open through May 13. All of the money is intended to help make sure that every school-aged student in the country has access to the Internet, as well as a device to use it.

The FCC has noted that this window may be the last for applying for money from the fund, which was authorized by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan Act that lawmakers passed in 2021. To date, the agency has distributed $4.8 billion, connecting an estimated 12.5 million students across the country.

The funds have gone directly to applying schools, libraries and adjacent groups, paying for things like Wi-Fi hot spots, routers and other devices with Internet connections.

In other FCC news this week, the commission released its eighth posting of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund recipients, the list of which totaled 1,345 successful bids. Interested parties can view the full list via the FCC’s posting.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a $20.4 billion funding push to help get better Internet in rural America, passed in 2019 ahead of the pandemic. Last month, the commission announced that it would be releasing $313 million to applicants. This new list identifies the successful bids, essentially including the exact amount for each as well as where that money is going.

Finally, in one last bit of FCC news, the commission this month published its new equity action plan, which it was required to do as part of President Biden’s executive order. That order tasks the FCC with advancing racial equity and support for traditionally underserved communities through its work.

There’s a lot in that report, but it can maybe be broken down into a few major pieces. First, the FCC notes that as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act it has also been tasked with facilitating equal access to broadband. As such, it has created a task force to prevent digital discrimination.

Next, the group is managing the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14.2 billion investment in helping eligible households get discounted Internet as well as the devices they need to use it. Finally, the FCC is continuing to work toward updating it’s oft-criticized broadband mapping efforts to make it easier for the public to find more detailed and precise information about broadband. (Zack Quaintance)

INDIANA ANNOUNCES $189M FOR STATE BROADBAND WORK


Broadband expansion investments continued this week at the state level as well, as the third round of recipients of the Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program was announced in Indiana, totaling $189 million. The funding will be paired with an additional $239 million in matching funds from 35 telecommunications providers and utility cooperatives.

“With this third round, we take giant steps in leveling the playing field for our residents regardless of where they choose to live, work or go to school,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in a statement.

The program, administered by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, has awarded $268 million in total for broadband infrastructure in the state. These investments build on the governor’s larger Next Level Connections infrastructure program. (Julia Edinger)

ARKANSAS STATE BROADBAND REPORT SHARES INFO ABOUT DIGITAL DIVIDE


In other state news, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration is working to bridge the digital divide for its residents with the release of key findings and recommendations from a state broadband report developed with Broadband Development Group.

A six-month study was conducted to develop a statewide plan for the digital divide, which currently leaves 210,000 households in the state underserved. The study involved hosting over 300 community meetings and obtaining over 18,000 resident surveys. The state plans to leverage federal and state funding to help bring service to underserved households.

Recommendations include the state implementing competitive bidding for grants, requiring affordability on rates, and future-proofing the technology with fiber optics. Next month, the Arkansas Department of Commerce will collaborate with stakeholders to discuss the report, which can be found on the department’s website. (Julia Edinger)

PLAYBOOK OFFERS RESOURCE TO BOOST DIGITAL SKILLS WITH DATA


As states move to prepare for the ongoing historic federal investment in digital equity through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a brief from the National Governors Association (NGA) titled “Using Data To Advance Digital Skills: A State Playbook” offers information and resources to help them close the digital skills gap. The release of the playbook comes as increased digital inclusion training is trending nationwide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The brief was developed in a collaborative effort between the NGA Workforce Innovation Network, the National Skills Coalition, World Education and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. It is divided into five parts, exploring what data states should collect, how to collect it, how to use it, connecting the data to state workforce goals and emerging practices in this space. It offers examples, resources and specific recommendations states can implement.

The playbook cites research from the National Skills Coalition stating that nearly 1 in 3 U.S. workers between the ages of 16 and 64 have few or no digital skills and underlines the need to reduce that gap in an increasingly digital labor market. (Julia Edinger)

KING COUNTY, WASH., TO INVEST IN DIGITAL LITERACY, EQUITY


Localities are also working to increase digital equity. For example, King County, Wash., is aiming to boost digital literacy with Digital Equity Grants — funded federally by the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds — to help residents access digital services.

Twenty-nine grant recipients were announced, and funding was awarded based on impact and sustainability — with a focus on how applicants would serve marginalized demographics, including Black and Indigenous communities, people with disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness.

The grant recipients will work to improve digital equity in a variety of ways, including workshops, technical support and loan-to-own device programs. The announcement aims to address findings from the county’s 2020 Broadband Access Study, which found that 20 percent of households were underserved. (Julia Edinger)

CENTRI TECH AWARDS $195K IN DIGITAL EQUITY GRANTS ACROSS FIVE CITIES


The Centri Tech Foundation — a nonprofit group that supports digital equity work — has awarded $195,000 across five organizations located in different U.S. cities. These awards are part of the group’s Digital Integrators Pilot Program launch, which aims to support digital skills training that builds toward an inclusive digital economy.

The money is also intended to support “programmatic innovations that promote a more equitable digital economy,” the Centri Tech Foundation noted in a statement. The groups receiving this funding are the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston; the Equitable Internet Initiative in Detroit; LIFT-NY in New York City; ExCITe Center in Philadelphia; and Byte Back in Washington, D.C.

As part of the reward, grantees will also join a six-month cohort and peer exchange to be facilitated by the Foundation.

More information about each recipient and its work can be found in the awards announcement. (Zack Quaintance)

NDIA PUBLISHES AFFORDABLE CONNECTIVITY PROGRAM RESOURCES


The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has published a new set of resources aimed at answering questions about the Affordable Connectivity Program (AFP), the federal government’s ongoing effort to help those in need afford to have Internet and devices at home.

The NDIA’s new ACP landing page includes an information video, infographics, an elaborate set of frequently asked questions, and links to places where interested parties can apply for the benefits. There is info on the page specifically for tribal areas, individuals, libraries, school districts, and more. (Zack Quaintance)

PEW RELEASES FURTHER GUIDANCE FOR STATE BROADBAND PLANS


The Pew Charitable Trusts has released new guidance for state government broadband plans. With a new brief titled “Strategies for Crafting Effective State Broadband Plans,” Pew is building upon its ongoing research in the area of state broadband planning to identify the most effective approaches and other valuable information.

The brief includes a list of key terms in the space, discussion of federal requirements for financial support, the elements of the most successful plans, and more. You can find the new brief via Pew’s website. (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.