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What’s New in Digital Equity: FCC Closer to Restoring Net Neutrality

Plus, Missouri is launching a new advisory council related to digital equity; Kansas is collecting more input on its broadband plans; Maryland is dedicating more money to getting people connected; and more.

A word cloud featuring "net neutrality" in the center in orange font with other smaller words surrounding it in black font.
This week in “What’s New in Digital Equity” — our weekly look at government digital equity and broadband news — we have a number of interesting items, which you can jump to with the links below:


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking related to re-establishing net neutrality protections following a 3-2 vote that fell along partisan lines.

The vote is another step in a monthslong process to bring back the net neutrality rules first established under the Obama administration and repealed during the Trump presidency. Net neutrality is the phrase for Internet regulations that essentially prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down certain services or websites. For example, with net neutrality in place, a provider couldn’t make the Google search engine work slower on its network.

These protections have been the subject of a partisan debate since they were first established, with Democrats mostly supporting them and Republicans mostly speaking out against. Supporters of net neutrality regulations say that it will ensure the Internet remains free and fair, with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel specifically connecting them to digital equity and the idea that went mainstream during the pandemic that high-speed Internet is now a utility, vital to participating in modern society.

Detractors of net neutrality, meanwhile, paint the regulations as putting an unnecessary burden on Internet service providers. They also say that the FCC getting involved here opens the door to the commission participating in other areas that are not part of its mission. Major telecommunications companies have largely opposed the rules as well.

After the adoption of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Thursday, several organizations that are active in the digital equity space spoke out in favor of the FCC taking action.

Benton Institute Senior Counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman said in a statement, “The COVID epidemic and the changing national security environment, among other things, demonstrate how essential it is for the FCC to restore the protections” related to net neutrality.

A final vote on whether to bring back the rules will likely take place next year. (Zack Quaintance)


In other federal news, a group of senators has signed a letter calling for the extension of Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) funding. If action is not taken, the program is expected to run out of funding in 2024.

“Should ACP funding not be extended, millions of Americans could be at risk of losing access to broadband,” the letter states, arguing that the failure to extend funding for this program would be irresponsible.

Thirty-two senators signed this letter urging Congress to extend program funding, which is essential to the connectivity of more than 21 million American families. Hundreds of organizations have already come together to state their support for continued program funding, arguing that the failure to do so could result in “the biggest loss of Internet connectivity ever.” (Julia Edinger)

The Missouri Department of Economic Development’s (DED) Office of Broadband Development (OBD) continues to advance its broadband deployment work, with the most recent announcement being the formation of an advisory council to inform planning for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and Digital Equity Act (DEA).

Members of this Connecting All Missourians Advisory Council will contribute to the state’s plans for using federal broadband funding from the BEAD program and DEA. Members will advise on policy questions, program designs, draft documents and connectivity needs. In addition, members will act as community ambassadors to encourage participation in various efforts.

The announcement names 17 inaugural members of the council, bringing expertise from different organizations like the St. Louis County Library, the Missouri Telehealth Network, the DED, the Department of Agriculture and more. Several state elected officials will also serve as inaugural members.

This follows recent news that the OBD announced its support for the Missouri ACP Act Now initiative to increase state residents’ enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program. (Julia Edinger)


In other state broadband planning news, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced the release of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Initial Proposal Volume 2. The public is invited to submit comments on this document until Nov. 12. Volume 2 and Volume 1, together with the BEAD 5-Year Action Plan, will help the state identify areas of need for deploying broadband statewide.

Volume 2 outlines objectives for broadband infrastructure projects as well as sub-grantee selection processes. In addition, the document includes plans to equip the workforce with skills to support this work, initiatives to promote inclusion of Minority Business Enterprises and Women Business Enterprises in these projects, consideration of environmental impact and more. (Julia Edinger)


Maryland is directing $69 million toward getting its unserved residents connected to high-speed Internet, the state’s governor announced.

The money will go to two programs, both of which are managed by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Statewide Broadband. One of the programs is related to public housing while the other aims to help connect properties that are difficult to serve. State officials estimate that the money can help to connect as many as 15,000 residents who don’t currently have reliable access to the Internet.

“Getting all Marylanders online is crucial in a society where Internet access can determine your job or your child’s education,” said Maryland Gov. Wes Moore in a statement. “We are grateful for the support of the U.S. Treasury in our efforts to close the digital divide and create a more equitable Maryland.”

Maryland has the money as part of the U.S. Treasury’s American Rescue Plan Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. (Zack Quaintance)


In other digital equity news from Maryland, Montgomery County — which is in the Washington, D.C., metro area — has requested $22.7 million for buying 60,000 Chromebooks for residents there who don’t have computers.

The request comes from the county executive director and goes to the Montgomery County Council. If approved, the money for the devices will come from a Federal Communications Commission Emergency Connectivity Fund grant. If the council approves, this initiative could launch as soon as November.

Logistically, the county’s library system would be vital in carrying out distribution of the devices, with eligibility limited to folks there who have library cards in the county. The full announcement of this move can be found here. (Zack Quaintance)
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for <i>Government Technology</i>. 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.