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Infrastructure Bill Promises Historic Boost for Digital Equity

“The exciting nature of it is that it opens up so many opportunities for state and local innovation around this issue,” said Amy Huffman, policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden
(Shutterstock/Naresh777)
The recently signed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package includes $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion work, delivering an investment that advocates are calling unprecedented and historic.

That number comes within a larger $65 billion sum going toward broadband connectivity. What makes the $2.75 billion within that significant is that it is aimed at digital inclusion, the work of giving people skills to use technology, affordable long-term access to it, and the devices they need to benefit from it in meaningful ways.

What’s more is that this money is earmarked for organizations at the state and local levels, a key structure choice, given that effective digital inclusion programs vary significantly by community, said Amy Huffman, currently policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and formerly a digital inclusion and policy manager with North Carolina.

“The exciting nature of it is that it opens up so many opportunities for state and local innovation around this issue,” Huffman said during a recent conversation with Government Technology. “That’s what I’m really excited about — state and local, and historically bootstrapped organizations in communities — to see what they come up with.”

Within the $65 billion going toward broadband, the $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion is set for two programs made up of grants. First, the money will go toward a digital equity capacity grant program for states. This will enable state government organizations to apply for funds they need to plan digital equity work. Once they have those plans, they can next apply for grant money to implement them.

Some states — including Maine and North Carolina — have robust broadband and digital programs already. Others, meanwhile, are creating new offices and adding staff members to aid with this newly funded work. Pennsylvania, for example, is contemplating the creation of a new broadband authority, a move Huffman expects to be emulated by other states.

But the money is not just going to states.

The second program funded by the digital equity section of the infrastructure bill is at the community level. Indeed, money will also go to competitive digital equity grants for community anchor institutions, which vary by jurisdiction but include libraries, public housing, local government, nonprofits and more. Those grants are intended to help with core digital inclusion efforts, including digital literacy training, digital navigation — wherein an expert guides a new user through every step they need to take to get connected — and more.

“You can’t close the digital divide with just pipes and wires,” Huffman said. “You have to also address the human side of the equation.”

This sort of investment seemed like a moonshot before the pandemic, when public-sector funding for digital inclusion was growing yet still relatively scarce, especially compared to these historic numbers. When the pandemic struck in early 2020, more vital functions and key pieces of everyday life were forced online, and this emphasized the importance of getting the entire country connected and able to use new technology in meaningful ways.

Some federal policymakers had already been laying groundwork for this sort of investment, having introduced a digital equity act in 2019. In the wake of COVID-19, that legislation was essentially renewed this year with bipartisan support, and many of its proposals and key provisions were ultimately rolled into the new infrastructure bill, remaining part of the legislation throughout passage and signing. In fact, very little changed, save for the amount of requested funding, which roughly doubled.

For those in the digital equity space, it’s worth reiterating once again that this marks historic support at the upper echelons of government for work they’ve been doing for years. Not only that, but a wide range of significant cross-sector stakeholders have come out in support of the bill’s broadband and digital equity components, with hardly a voice of dissent.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, for example, released a statement this week praising the bill, describing it as “much needed funding to improve rural broadband. The bipartisan support for this policy achievement is evidence that, together, we can build a more inclusive future for all.”

Advocacy groups in the space, while elated, say this is all a beginning to what is hopefully a sustained public investment in digital inclusion and equity. Items that remain on the NDIA’s wishlist, for example, include funding specifically to help those in need get devices, as well as money for trusted community partners to do outreach in support of their digital inclusion work.

“The way we’ve been thinking about it is that this is a really good down payment on what needs to happen, but if you think about what a down payment is, that’s not the full amount,” Huffman said. “There needs to be additional sustained investment in this work from the federal government, from states and from local communities.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine