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What's New in Digital Equity: The Digital Divide and Access to Justice

Plus, the FCC authorizes $313 million more through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Maine creates a web page to track broadband work in the state, government agencies look to hire digital inclusion staff, and more.

A digital rendering of the scales of justice.
Shutterstock
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!


HOW THE DIGITAL DIVIDE IMPACTS ACCESS TO JUSTICE


The digital divide is having an increasing impact on whether residents get equitable access to justice, a new report found.

The report — dubbed Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement — was released this month by Next Century Cities (NCC), a nonprofit organization that supports local government efforts to get all residents connected. NCC partnered on this new report with the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law.

In short, the report looks at the relationship between digital inequities and court proceedings that are evolving to include the use of new tech. This means developments such as remote hearings. This report was built on interviews with a total of 27 public defenders, family attorneys, community organizers, public servants and others. The press release from NCC that accompanied the report's release described these interviews as "sobering accounts of the challenges associated with being disconnected when trying to gain access to public forums that have transitioned online."

This is, of course, increasingly relevant after distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly forced many government services to go online for the first time. The situation is still fluid, but many jurisdictions across the country are now working out how much of the remote components established during quarantine will stay in government moving forward. For example, the family drug court in Pima County, Ariz., moved to Microsoft Teams for hearings during the pandemic. While there were benefits — stakeholders in that project said it helped them serve more and different participants than they were able to pre-pandemic — those gains have the potential to shut other users out if they're on the wrong side of the digital divide, the report found.

“The increase in exclusively online services accelerated by the pandemic has left a lasting mark on the way that residents across the U.S. participate in democracy, access public services and exercise their rights in court," said Corian Zacher, senior policy counsel at NCC. "Without equitable connectivity to accompany the transition, barriers to legal and civic participation will continue to pose insurmountable obstacles for already disadvantaged residents."

This all speaks to one of the major incentives for government to treat access to Internet like a utility and continue to work to get all the people they serve online — digital services have the potential to be more efficient, easier to use and more affordable, but that only holds true if they're not leaving anyone out.

A summary of the report's highlights — which includes recommendations for government — can be found on NCC's website. (Zack Quaintance)

FCC TO AUTHORIZE $313M THROUGH RURAL OPPORTUNITY FUND

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced that it will authorize over $313 million more through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). This marks the eighth round of funding in the program, which has provided over $5 billion in total funding to date. This round is expected to fund broadband deployments in 19 states, bringing service to over 130,000 locations.

“Reaching everyone, everywhere with high-speed Internet service is the infrastructure challenge of this generation,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a tweet. “We’re making progress and we’re not going to stop until broadband reaches 100 percent of us.”

The FCC will continue to monitor and ensure compliance with the program rules through the Rural Broadband Accountability Plan and other oversight measures.

More information, including a list of RDOF providers and funding amounts as well as a list of eligible census blocks covered by the winning bids announced today can be found on the FCC’s website. (Julia Edinger)

MAINE WEB PAGE TRACKS BROADBAND EFFORTS WITHIN THE STATE


The Maine Broadband Coalition has created a new web page to track broadband progress in that state. The web page's features include community success stories, a listing of regional initiatives, a map that visualizes where the work is happening in Maine and audio of digital inclusion experts discussing their work in Maine.

"We believe that keeping public record of community-driven initiatives is a powerful tool for regions, counties and municipalities to propel their own projects forward," the group wrote at the top of the web page. "Collaboration creates community, and communities create change." (Zack Quaintance)

MICHIGAN INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN INCLUDES $250M FOR BROADBAND


Following behind the federal government, Michigan has passed a new infrastructure funding plan at the state level, and it includes $250 million for broadband.

The bill — which was signed into law this week — is a $5 billion bipartisan investment plan with money for improving transportation, water and high-speed Internet infrastructure. The $250 million for broadband is one of the larger chunks of funding in the new bill.

The signing of an infrastructure bill by a major state with that much money for broadband is yet another sign that the public sector has come to consider high-speed Internet as a utility, something the public sector must provide in order for its residents to productively exist in modern society. To put it in context, the other items being supported financially by this new plan include clean water initiatives, bridges and roads programs, and new state parks.

What the money will be used for and where the funding will go exactly was not included in the press release. Advocates in the digital inclusion space emphasize the importance of making funding decisions based on the individual needs of a community, which can mean everything from funding municipal broadband networks to creating new public-private partnerships. (Zack Quaintance)

MEET THE BRAND-NEW DIGITAL EQUITY RESEARCH CENTER


The Metropolitan New York Library Council has launched the Digital Equity Research Center, which as its name implies is interested in centralizing and providing digital inclusion resources to those who practice the work in both New York City and nearby Westchester County, New York.

This new resource center has three primary areas of focus, which are meaningful broadband adoption, digital equity via public libraries and digital equity ecosystems. In addition to digital inclusion practitioners, the center's website notes that it also hopes to reach policymakers and philanthropic organizations.

More information can be found on the center's website. (Zack Quaintance)


CHECK OUT THE MIAMI FOUNDATION'S DIGITAL EQUITY GRANTS



The Miami Foundation, which is a philanthropic organization that makes charitable investments in its namesake city, has announced a round of new digital equity grants through the aptly named Miami Connected Digital Equity Grant Program. The maximum grant award through this program will be $75,000.

Eligible applicants must be nonprofit organizations, and work in all grant proposals must primarily serve residents of Miami-Dade County, Fla. The window of applications for this grant money will be open from April 20 through May 18. Successful applicants will be notified by July 1. (Zack Quaintance)

BEAVER COUNTY, PA., LAUNCHES BROADBAND PROGRAM, WEBSITE

Beaver County, Pa., has launched a broadband program and a website to go with it. As stated on the website, the Connect Beaver County Broadband Program aims to bring broadband access to parts of 28 municipalities across the county, with a goal of helping to connect unserved and underserved residents.

The program entails five key actions: 1) new broadband service, 2) Digital Navigator Program, 3) connect county-owned towers via fiber, 4) Broadband Utility Connection Fund and 5) continued digital equity and data collection analyses. The program was launched in response to findings from a broadband data collection and feasibility study, completed in 2021, which identified connectivity opportunity areas to direct broadband expansion efforts. An interactive map of these areas can be found on the website.

The initiative will use nearly $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding, with an expected completion date of December 2024. The Beaver County Office of Planning and Redevelopment is leading the program, and the Beaver County Planning Commission has provided support for the effort. (Julia Edinger)

WASHINGTON APPOINTS NEW STATE BROADBAND LEADER


Washington has appointed Mark Vasconi to lead the Washington State Broadband Office, which is housed within the Washington Department of Commerce.

State officials noted in the hiring announcement that they hope Vasconi's track record of digital equity work and helping to connect both urban and rural communities will make him ideally suited to lead toward Washington's goal of 100 percent broadband access for residents by 2024.

Vasconi brings both public- and private-sector experience to the role, having worked as a senior executive in product development and government affairs for AT&T in Alaska. In this capacity, Vasconi worked to connect tribal communities. His public-sector experience includes serving as director of regulatory services at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission since 2010.

Vasconi takes the lead at the Washington State Broadband Office as of April 1, and when he does, he will have some new resources at his disposal. The office received $30 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That money is to go toward last-mile connection work in five rural counties. In addition to that, the 2022 state operating budget provides the office with $100 million, some of which is from recently passed federal broadband funding efforts. (Zack Quaintance)

MISSOURI HIRING BROADBAND GRANT MANAGER


Missouri is looking to hire a broadband grants manager.

This week, the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) announced that it is hiring for six positions to support initiatives through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The new staff members will support multiple initiatives, including grant programs for businesses, broadband infrastructure and more. The agency plans to hire over a dozen ARPA-funded roles in this fiscal year. The six ARPA-funded positions open right now include deputy director for federal initiatives, broadband grants manager and more.

The broadband grants manager will report to the director of the Office of Broadband Development. Qualifications required for this position include a bachelor’s degree in a related field and five to seven years of experience, although equivalent professional experience may be substituted for the degree. Candidates are expected to have experience in grant evaluation, management, compliance and reporting. (Julia Edinger)

PHILADELPHIA TO HIRE DIGITAL EQUITY VISTA


Philadelphia is looking for folks who are interested in joining its VISTA Corps, which works with city departments on matters related to injustices and causes of poverty.

Specifically, the city is looking to hire a digital equity VISTA to work on the city’s Digital Equity Plan, as tweeted by the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology Twitter account. Members of the Serve Philadelphia VISTA Corps serve full time for one year, working with city departments to combat injustices and poverty. The digital equity VISTA, according to the position description, will “develop the systems needed to implement, evaluate and sustain Philadelphia’s Digital Equity Plan.”

The ideal candidate is organized and skilled at research, in addition to having experience engaging with different audiences. Knowledge of Excel, PowerPoint and Google Docs, or a willingness to learn, are preferred.

Applicants must apply by April 1. (Julia Edinger)


INDIANA UNVEILS STATE'S FIRST REGIONAL DIGITAL INCLUSION PLAN



Indiana officials have unveiled the state's first regional digital inclusion plan. It was a joint effort between the Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (SIRPC) and the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD).

The plan looks to foster digital equity in 10 counties in the state, with involved officials saying they hope this work has the potential to shape digital inclusion throughout Indiana. The four primary goals listed in the plan are building/upgrading broadband that is scalable and future-proof; making sure that all residents have access to high-quality and affordable devices with technical support; providing digital literacy for people of all types and ages; and building digital inclusion into regional economic development strategies, in part through public-private partnerships. (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.