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U.S. Commerce Secretary Raimondo Drops into Net Inclusion

Raimondo stressed that the federal government needs local digital inclusion practitioners to help it bridge the digital divide, making a trip to San Antonio specifically for the event.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo waving from onstage next to NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer at Net Inclusion 2023.
The crowd gives a standing ovation to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo (left) and NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer.
Zack Quaintance
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo dropped into Net Inclusion Wednesday, saying she made the trip to the nation’s premiere digital inclusion event to deliver a message: the federal government needs help bridging the digital divide.

And it needs help from the folks at Net Inclusion, a three-day gathering of digital equity practitioners, many of whom work at the community level. Their input, Raimondo said, is absolutely key. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has dedicated $2.75 billion specifically to digital equity — an unprecedented sum that coupled with broadband money in the bill adds up to $65 billion.

“We need your help,” Raimondo said. “This cannot be done in Washington. We have money, but we don’t have all the great ideas. We need to hear from you what it’s going to take in order to make sure we invest the money alongside every community in a way that’s most effective so nobody’s left behind.”

Raimondo made a related announcement — the Commerce Department was opening a request for comment on two pieces of the Digital Equity Act, specifically those related to grants — the $1.44 billion State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program as well as the $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.

Comments can be made to the department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is handling distribution of the digital equity money. The way the Infrastructure Act is designed, that money will then go down through the states. The approach is designed to ensure that each state spends the money in ways that ease their specific challenges.

Raimondo — herself a former two-term governor of Rhode Island — also emphasized this part. All 50 states, she noted, now have broadband offices. And all 50 states have also signed letters of participation and subsequently received planning grants for the forthcoming broadband monies.

In addition to announcing the request for comment, Raimondo urged anyone who does digital inclusion work at the local level to get in touch with their state’s broadband office.

“We need you weighing in with the broadband offices of every state,” she said. “If you don’t already know who runs the broadband office in the state where you operate — that’s your homework today.”

That information is available on the federal government website dedicated to closing the digital divide,

Raimondo spoke to the attendees as part of a fireside chat with Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), which organizes Net Inclusion.

Lost on no one was that the attendance of a presidential cabinet member was a major moment of validation for the event, as well as for the people who have been doing digital inclusion work in the United States for years. The event grew from a few hundred attendees last year to more than 800 this year, a new record for it.

And it’s almost impossible to have a conversation at Net Inclusion without someone mentioning that the pandemic supercharged this work, providing as it did tangible proof that Internet in the home has become a necessity for participating in health care, education and even employment. A good number of folks in attendance are also new to digital inclusion work, a testament to the ongoing growth of the field.

But as Siefer pointed out while introducing Raimondo, this is all creating a very different reality for digital inclusion. Gone are the times that high-ranking federal officials would just send video comments for Net Inclusion. Now, they’re making the trip in person.

“This is your moment,” Raimondo told the crowd. “You’ve really been at this for so long. You’ve been talking about it for years, and now everybody’s listening. It’s your moment to step up and use your expertise to make this happen.”

As she left the stage, the crowd sent her off with a standing ovation, seeming to clap as much for her presence as for the validation of all the progress that had been made.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.