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Deploying Federal Broadband Funds in an Equitable Way

Following the recent announcement of federal funding allocations from the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, experts are weighing in on how to make the most of the opportunity.

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As states plan to deploy funding from the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, experts underline the importance of centering equity in these plans.

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the allocation of funding at the end of June, and state leaders have celebrated the news week after week. However, to maximize the impact of this rare funding opportunity, the money alone won’t solve the inequities.

Some communities have been disproportionately affected by the digital divide, and as explained by NTIA Digital Equity Director Angela Thi Bennett, the BEAD funding specifically prioritizes unserved and underserved areas.

“This funding will directly impact our most vulnerable communities because those are the ones that have been most impacted by the digital divide,” said Bennett.


While states work to create their digital equity plans as required through the BEAD program, officials are working with community stakeholders, as well as individuals who will be directly impacted, in what Bennett described as the “largest demonstration of participatory democracy this country has ever seen.”

There are uniquely varied needs that impact each community and state, and that’s why it’s key to have these voices at the table throughout the planning process for government to effectively meet constituents where they are, she noted.

As part of the planning process, Bennett said that the challenges states are facing can also serve as strengths in the long run. While it is a challenge to understand the needs of vulnerable communities, it also offers an opportunity for increased engagement between communities and state leaders.

“This is whole-of-nation work,” said Bennett.

From federal agencies to local organizations, Bennett argues that everyone has a role to play in closing the digital divide.

If state leaders go into a planning meeting and know everybody in the room, she said, it should be clear that they need to include untapped people and organizations.

Some organizations may not have funding sources to contribute, but they may have human capital like knowledge or other resources that they can leverage, or they can help by elevating the voices of those community members they serve.

And while the investments made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law offer what is being referred to as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the partnerships forged through this work will remain when the funding has been spent, Bennett said.

“And we will all get to see that, together, we will have this collective impact in our communities,” Bennett said.


For rural communities, unique connectivity challenges exist regarding infrastructure and affordability. This funding can help bridge those gaps to get every American connected, as part of the federal government’s pledge.

“Thanks to President Biden’s leadership, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding is another big step toward that goal,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andy Berke told Government Technology in a statement. “Alongside USDA programs like ReConnect and Community Connect, this funding will ensure that unserved Americans will now be able to get medical treatment, study for school, or sell their products from their homes or businesses.”

Caitlin Cain, vice president at the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) and director of Rural LISC, explained that the federal funding announcement validates the need for broadband as a necessary utility, and it also amplifies the need in terms of having a more concerted investment.

And while rural communities typically share a few common connectivity gaps — a lack of capacity to guarantee access to resources and skills — they also are unique communities with unique needs.

“If you’ve been to one rural community, you’ve been to one rural community,” Cain said.

As such, when focusing on these investments, Cain emphasized the role of regional planning with a rural lens. She argued that outreach and public-private partnerships are a big part of digital equity for rural and tribal communities, noting that beyond building the infrastructure, community needs also entail planning for workforce development, housing and economic development.

“There is no question that it is an economic multiplier — socially and economically,” said Cain. “I think having this level of infrastructure, this commitment to ensuring that investment, makes this such a profound move.”

Connectivity is one piece of the larger puzzle. But how it will help a community meet its workforce and economic goals takes a more intentional strategy, something states should consider in creating their digital equity plans.


And while these investments offer the potential for major economic impact, data plays an important role in equitable distribution, explained Ashley Perry, chief strategy and solutions officer.

As health-care and social care services like accessing benefits are increasingly becoming digitized in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the unintended consequence has been a deepening of disparities related to access.

“We think that this is an important step forward in terms of being able to address some of the access issues that are presenting real challenges, and then through that, to be able to advance equity and improve outcomes for populations and communities that are disproportionately impacted by challenges with broadband access,” she said about the $42.45 billion in funding allocations.

However, in order to make these investments count, she said, government entities should prioritize a data-driven approach.

Historically, there have been gaps in data in terms of uneven data availability. Socially Determined’s Digital Landscape metric offers a way to assess community needs, allowing governments to prioritize those with the greatest disparities. Working with organizations outside of the public sector that compile this data and make it something one can visualize allows strategic decisions to be made in allocating resources to mitigate disparities.

“I would just encourage organizations to think about ways that they can leverage different data assets to really catalyze the work that they’re doing and to make sure that as they do that, all of the investments that they’re making are advancing equity — instead of entrenching disparities,” she said.

Editor's note: Ashley Perry's title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. It has since been adjusted.
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.