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What’s New in Digital Equity: FCC Votes to Restore Net Neutrality

Plus, $204 million is made available for Internet expansion in Pennsylvania, New York’s ConnectALL launches its County Partnerships program, and more.

A dollar sign layered over a circuit board.
Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens
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) voted Thursday to reinstate net neutrality protections.

Net neutrality protections essentially require Internet service providers to offer all users consistent rates for speeds of service. These protections were first established almost 10 years ago, then repealed in 2017. Now they are being restored.

The repeal of the rules caused a major ripple effect throughout state and local government. The move was largely unpopular among city leaders, with many speaking out against the repeal. At the state level, several states established their own protections amid the void in federal leadership, creating a patchwork.

This new vote brings a good deal of broadband regulation power back under the scope of the FCC.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has stressed the importance of net neutrality, pointing to broadband having become essentially a utility — akin to water and electricity. Proponents say the new ruling sets a standard, giving the FCC authority to treat broadband access as the essential service it is, although there is debate over the matter. Detractors say net neutrality protections are unnecessary regulations with the potential to stifle innovation.

In a fact sheet, the FCC cited five reasons for restoring net neutrality protections.

First, the FCC will be able to prevent Internet service providers from creating “Internet fast lanes” at a higher cost for selective users. Second, the FCC will be able to offer information and potentially aid in restoration of services in the case of outages. Third, the FCC will be able to increase the security of broadband networks. Fourth, open Internet protections will protect free speech online by preventing providers from policing types of speech. And finally, small and medium-sized companies will have a more level playing field in the market.

“Today’s decision to reclassify broadband service as a Title II telecommunications service allows the FCC to protect consumers, defend national security and advance public safety,” the FCC wrote in its announcement. (Zack Quaintance and Julia Edinger)


The second Notice of Funding Opportunity for the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program has resulted in more than 160 applications, with funding requests totaling more than $2.64 billion.

The funding for this $3 billion grant program comes from the Internet for All initiative through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Through the second notice of funding, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has made about $980 million available.

“The number of applications for our Tribal connectivity program shows that demand remains high for quality Internet service in Indian Country,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson in the announcement.

The awards distributed through this program are part of a federal effort to improve nation-to-nation engagement and connectivity.

This builds on similar efforts to connect tribal nations to the Internet, such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s Tribal Digital Inclusion Trailblazers program, announced earlier this year at the Net Inclusion event. A Tribal Broadband Summit was held last year to share information on opportunities to close the divide for these marginalized populations. Some Native American nations are even building their own networks to improve connectivity.

“For Tribal communities to thrive in the modern digital economy, they need access to affordable, reliable high-speed Internet service,” Davidson said. (Julia Edinger)


In other federal news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is partnering with rural cooperatives, local organizations and tribes to support deployment of high-speed Internet. Through the Broadband Technical Assistance Program, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, USDA is awarding $5.2 million for this work. By providing funding to cooperatives and organizations for the deliverance or receipt of broadband technical assistance training, this investment will support feasibility studies, hiring efforts and more.

The funding announced this week will support people in 11 states: Alaska, Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia. More information on the projects that will be funded through this investment can be found on USDA’s website. (Julia Edinger)


Pennsylvania has approved $204 million in new grant money to support broadband in the state, officials have announced.

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority awarded the money to 53 projects spread across 42 counties, estimating it will help to connect 40,000 homes and businesses to high-speed Internet. The grants — which are going to a mix of businesses and nonprofit organizations — are expected to be matched by more than $200 million in private investments, too.

Officials noted that the grant award decisions were made based on a project’s potential to serve unserved or underserved areas, as well as on the experience of those involved in deploying high-speed Internet service. Other factors that came into play were the potential to provide affordable service, as well as job creation.

The money came from the federal Capital Projects Fund. More information about these awards can be found via the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority’s website. (Zack Quaintance)


Empire State Development has announced the opening of applications for up to $50 million for county partnerships through the ConnectALL Deployment Program.

New York’s ConnectALL initiative is a $1 billion initiative aiming to close the digital divide in the state by working to ensure high-speed broadband access. This week’s announcement for the ConnectALL Deployment County Partnerships Program will help connect unserved and underserved locations through collaborative partnerships. Counties can apply for a grant through this program until May 10.

ConnectALL has already overseen the launch of the ConnectALL Deployment Program, the Affordable Housing Connectivity Program, the Municipal Infrastructure Program and the New York State Digital Equity Plan. (Julia Edinger)


A partnership between nonprofit Connect Humanity and Microsoft announced this week aims to bring access to high-speed Internet in Appalachian communities.

Appalachia as a region is less connected than the national population; households there are 31 percent more likely not to have a broadband subscription, according to research. Connect Humanity’s Investing in Digital Equity Appalachia (IDEA) Fund will support investments in community Internet service providers in the area to help meet residents’ needs.

Although this announcement’s timing coincides with investment from the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, Connect Humanity said in its announcement that BEAD will not close the digital divide without additional investment. (Julia Edinger)


Following the acceptance of digital equity plans in all 50 states, the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program was officially launched on March 29. This $1.44 billion program will support the implementation of these plans, but there is a lot of information stakeholders need to know to maximize the impact of funding.

To help provide information on the program and how to prepare for possible subgrant programs, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) is hosting an informational webinar this week to answer questions. The webinar will be hosted April 26 at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Following tomorrow’s event, an April 29 webinar will explore the role of partnerships in Digital Equity Act Competitive Grant applications.

Separately, NDIA is making a final push for the continuation of the Affordable Connectivity Program as it winds down, compiling statements in support of the program and other resources to help stakeholders urge Congress to take action. (Julia Edinger)
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.
Associate editor for <i>Government Technology</i> magazine.