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What States Should Know as Federal Digital Equity Money Arrives

The Biden administration has taken its first steps toward releasing $45 billion of federal funding for broadband and digital equity, with the money going first to state governments tasked with executing the vision.

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The White House has taken its first steps toward distributing $45 billion of federal money aimed at getting the entire country connected to high-speed Internet, with President Biden inviting governors this month to start applying for these funds.

This is the first injection of funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which has $65 billion total for broadband, an unprecedented and historical amount of money that essentially means the U.S. government has acknowledged high-speed Internet is now a utility. Ultimately, this money must pass through state government agencies to reach the community level, where it has the highest potential to help people get computers, Internet connections and affordable monthly rates.

A challenge nationwide, however, is that with the exception of a few examples — North Carolina and Washington, namely — state governments have until recently lacked broadband offices or even a single full-time employee dedicated to the work, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Many have added resources after the pandemic made it clear how important it was to have unfettered access to high-speed Internet, but most states remain understaffed or under-experienced.

To put this into context, the billions of dollars coming down through the IIJA for roads and bridges will be handled by state departments of transportation, which have for years had hundreds of staffers. They also have experience having previously allocated federal money, and a clear system for establishing where this money is needed and how it will be put to work. These are all things that state broadband offices mostly or entirely lack.

With that in mind, Siefer said Monday that the NDIA is rapidly rolling out resources to help states understand their opportunities for funding, as well as how to apply for that funding and best practices for how to put it to work.

The NDIA has new resources around the sources of the funding, the types of grants it will go through and more. The group is also offering a series of webinars about the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment and Digital Equity Act programs, which are two of the primary programs for distributing the funding.

Siefer said it was important for states to realize that this money alone will not fix their digital equity problems, at least not permanently. States need to approach this funding thoughtfully, ensuring the money is well spent and doing so in a way that changes systems. Essentially, the goal here should be to make sure this isn't just disaster response funding allocated in the wake of a global pandemic, but rather a moment in which society and its power structures accept that everyone should have access to effective high-speed Internet at all times, not just occasionally via public Wi-Fi or on their phones.

Another piece of advice for the states is to make sure to engage partners on the local level.

“For a lot of very well-meaning efforts," Siefer said, "the focus is on the states because that’s where the money is going to go through. An important focus at NDIA is we also need to be supporting folks at the local level, because they’re the ones who know their communities.”

When spending government money to get people free computers or discounted connections, a key element is trust. A common reaction to these programs is that free or cheap government Internet must be a scam. But if the program is being pushed by a senior center or a church or a housing group that also teaches computer classes, folks are more likely to listen.

States would do well to direct this money toward those types of partners.

“If we’re not also helping folks at the local levels, the state plans will not be as good as they should be," Siefer said.

States should also be wary of opportunists showing up with a pitch for how they can do all their digital equity work for them. With so much money on the way, Siefer and others in the digital equity space are seeing these kinds of business pitches being made, and investing in a single entity for such a nuanced effort would be a mistake.

Finally, states should acknowledge that it is impossible to entirely eliminate the digital divide. Technology will always accelerate faster than people can understand it. With that in mind, the goal should instead be to create systems and a culture that continues to address digital inequities long term, that prioritizes digital skills training and makes affordable Internet connections the norm, rather than a trendy effort after an unprecedented global pandemic.

“The harder outcome we really all need to figure out is have we changed things as such that these services continue to be available after the federal money is spent," Siefer said.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine