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What’s New in Digital Equity: Mississippi Adds Broadband Office

Plus, one of the most successful public fiber networks in the country is now partnering to bring high-speed Internet to rural California, New York state is committing more than $1 billion to connect residents, and more.

A sign welcoming visitors to Mississippi.
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Mississippi has created a state broadband office and appointed its first leader, the state has announced, becoming the most recent state to centralize the work to connect all residents to high-speed Internet.

Gov. Tate Reeves this week signed the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi Act. The new central office will be called the Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi (BEAM), and officials said in the announcement that it “will be committed to coordinating and streamlining broadband policy in the state.”

BEAM will be housed within the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration. A significant part of its responsibility will be helping to administer the historic amount of federal funding coming down through grant programs for connecting underserved areas, an amount that totals $65 billion nationwide. Leading this effort for Mississippi will be Sally Doty, who was appointed by the governor as BEAM’s first director.

Prior to the appointment, Doty served as the executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff. She also has legislative experience, having served a 10-year stint as a senator in the state.

To date, Doty has largely overseen the pandemic-sparked increase in funding to the state from the feds for broadband. Under her leadership, the Public Utilities Staff has administered $75 million in CARES Act broadband funding, most recently applying for a $32 million infrastructure grant that aims to help connect 12,000 currently unserved households spread throughout 10 counties in Mississippi.

While many states had broadband offices or staffers prior to the pandemic, a large group of states are now working to create this type of broadband-specific office. Unlike other work supported by federal funding — from transportation to housing — broadband is just now seeing this sort of massive support for the first time. Whereas all states have large departments of transportation with large staffs, leadership structures and established practices for handling federal support, high-speed Internet offices at the state level are in their relative infancies.

As such, states across the country are steadily announcing codified offices like this one as well as leadership appointments, while more job postings for public-sector Internet work happen each week. Essentially, in the wake of the pandemic, all levels of government have started to treat high-speed Internet in the home as a utility, and news like this reflects that evolution in real time. (Zack Quaintance)

NEW YORK BUDGET HAS MORE THAN $1B FOR BROADBAND


New York’s new budget includes more than $1 billion for broadband, the state has revealed, making good on plans first mentioned by Gov. Kathy Hochul in her 2022 State of the State address. The money will go toward connecting residents in both rural and urban areas, with officials also saying they hope to establish a municipal broadband program in New York unlike anything else currently found in the country.

This is all part of the ConnectALL Initiative, which as the name suggests aims to connect all of New York to high-speed Internet. Scott Rasmussen, acting director of the ConnectALL Office, said in a tweet that the program is “devoted to supporting New Yorkers to determine their own digital future.”

The budget will also establish several broadband-related programs and investments, including a Local Connectivity Planning Grant Program, Rural Broadband Grant Program and a Digital Equity Program, as outlined in the budget briefing book.

In addition, the FY 2023 budget will end a fee for fiber deployment along the state’s highway infrastructure, which will in turn make broadband deployment more affordable, especially as it pertains to rural Upstate New York.

Finally, the budget will also authorize the New York Power Authority to make excess capacity in its fiber-optic network available to provide broadband for underserved communities, another step in the state’s work to reduce the cost of broadband deployment. (Julia Edinger)

SEATTLE TO HIRE DIGITAL EQUITY PROGRAM & BROADBAND MANAGER


As federal agencies are staffing up to distribute broadband funding, local governments are following suit. The city of Seattle is recruiting candidates to serve in the digital equity program and broadband manager position with the Seattle Information Technology Department’s Client and Community Engagement Division.

This person will manage the Digital Equity Program team, which is responsible for overseeing digital inclusion planning and grants. Ideal candidates will have experience in the broadband industry, and experience in public policy development or a similar field.

The city’s digital inclusion work has been in progress since 1996, including a 2016 Digital Equity Action Plan and numerous reports since then to measure the initiative’s progress. (Julia Edinger)

BALTIMORE HIRING DIGITAL EQUITY COORDINATOR


Like Seattle, the city of Baltimore is also looking to hire someone to help combat the digital divide. The Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity is looking for a digital equity coordinator (DEC) to lead the office’s efforts related to communications and engagement.

The position is going to be responsible for engaging the community in events and partnerships, managing the Digital Equity Fund portfolio, helping to implement the city’s Digital Equity Scorecard initiative and otherwise helping the office to meet connectivity goals.

The city’s other moves to combat the digital divide include the March 2021 appointment of the city’s first broadband and digital equity director, Jason Hardebeck, to work with community stakeholders to better understand and combat connectivity barriers. (Julia Edinger)

UTAH PUBLIC NETWORK UTOPIA TO HELP CONNECT CALIFORNIA


The Golden State Connect Authority (GSCA) — a 38-county collective dedicated to helping rural Californians get high-speed Internet — has entered into a new partnership with Utah’s UTOPIA Fiber, the largest open access municipal fiber network in the United States.

The partnership aims to boost GSCA’s own efforts to connect member counties through the deployment of open access fiber in rural California, drawing from UTOPIA’s experience doing similar work in its home state. Specifically, UTOPIA will draw from that experience to help GSCA by providing administrative services for its proposed networks. GSCA is currently evaluating places in rural California to install new broadband fiber networks.

“UTOPIA Fiber has proven itself to be an industry leader with demonstrated expertise in establishing and operating an Open Access network that invites Internet service providers to compete for customers, resulting in price and speed choices for consumers,” said GSCA Board Chair and Calaveras County Supervisor Jack Garamendi in a statement. “GSCA looks forward to building upon the knowledge and experience of UTOPIA Fiber and working together to advance Internet access across rural California.”

More information about municipal networks in the U.S. can be found via Community Networks. (Zack Quaintance)

WHITE HOUSE SHARES GUIDANCE FOR RURAL COMMUNITIES SEEKING BROADBAND FUNDS


The White House has released new guidance for rural communities seeking funding from the recently passed infrastructure act, doing so with a 17-page report that features info about eight different initiatives that contain broadband and digital equity funding.

The report — dubbed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Rural Playbook — is essentially a centralized listing of funding initiatives for federal money now available to support broadband and digital equity, including the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program; the ReConnect Program; the Digital Equity Grants Program; the Tribal Connectivity Broadband Program; and more.

Within that, there are also some tidbits of general guidance for rural communities as it relates to this money, including, “To get ready to apply for and deploy the Department of Commerce funding, rural communities should begin to work with their state legislators and state infrastructure coordinators to solidify partnerships required to improve connectivity across the state.” (Zack Quaintance)

OHIO COUNTY PLANS TO BUILD 125-MILE FIBER RING


Summit County, Ohio — which is located just outside Cleveland and is home to Akron — is planning to build a new 125-mile fiber ring that would connect public safety entities in the area while also improving access for residents and businesses, according to local media.

The county hopes to do so as part of a larger broadband infrastructure push that is being paid for with a mix of public funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and investments from private Internet providers. The project — dubbed the Summit County Public Safety Fiber and Communications Network — could ultimately include $400 million of investments. The 125-mile fiber ring would be owned by the county and operated by the city of Fairlawn, Ohio.

The ring would connect all 31 communities in the county to an emergency radio system, a consolidated dispatch center and a virtual courts platform. It would also provide added Internet capacity for people who live and work in those communities. (Zack Quaintance)

USDR LAUNCHES NEW REDESIGNED WEBSITE


Finally, this week the United States Digital Response — a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that helps government better meet the needs of its residents — has launched a new, redesigned website.

The design process for the new site, USDR notes, was deliberate and focused on accessibility, and there are plans to share insights of the process for it soon. This new site comes after the group — which began as a volunteer rapid response effort in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — recently celebrated its second anniversary and spoke to us about plans for the future. (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.