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What's New in Digital Equity: Lawmakers Urge Action on Accessibility

Plus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now accepting applications for a program that will invest $1 billion in rural high-speed Internet, Tennessee has announced $447 million in broadband investments, and more.

Closeup of a black keyboard with one red key that says "Accessibility" and has an icon of a person in a wheelchair.
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:


Thirty-two House Democrats have come together to request in a letter that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) address digital accessibility issues by making regulations and other administrative actions well known.

In the letter, addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, DOJ’s recent issuance of guidance — the March 2022 Guidance on Web Accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act — was commended. However, it is noted that while the DOJ issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2010 to increase clarity in ADA regulations, the notice was withdrawn in 2017 by the Trump administration and a proposed rule was never issued.

While the DOJ has stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to digital spaces like websites, there is currently a lack of specific requirements or compliance standards in regulation.

The group behind the letter believes DOJ needs to take further steps to improve website accessibility. The letter states that access to digital services for people with disabilities “is not simply a luxury or convenience, but a necessity.”

The letter underlines the need for the DOJ to issue clarifications to solve this problem and recommends the following actions under Titles II and III of the ADA: making updated regulations widely available that include accessibility and usability standards in line with requirements under Section 508 and the inclusion of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1; consistently implementing ADA nationwide by clarifying that regulations on Title III apply to websites, online systems, mobile applications and other forms of ICT even if there is an in-person alternative; updating subregulatory guidance regarding digital accessibility, for example, technical assistance guidelines that haven’t been updated since 2003; and pursuing additional settlement agreements on this topic through Project Civic Access to advance accessibility and provide clear policy guidelines.

“As new and emerging technologies continue to enter the marketplace and quickly begin to be incorporated into our daily lives, additional regulatory and administrative action by DOJ is critical to creating a truly equitable society,” the letter states.

The recommendations are intended to align with the mission of President Biden’s executive order 13895 and executive order 14035 to center equity in the work of the federal government. (Julia Edinger)


The U.S. Department of Agriculture has opened applications on a program that aims to ultimately invest $1 billion in broadband infrastructure for rural America, the agency has announced.

The initiative is called the ReConnect Program, and it will distribute the money through loans and grants. The funds for the program are made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is putting $65 billion toward getting all Americans connected. The application deadline is set for Nov. 2.

The breakdown for this money is that there are $150 million available for allocation, $700 million set for grants and $300 million up for combination loan/grants. This is also not the first round of funding to be made available through the ReConnect Program, with the initiative having already invested $656 million for rural communities spread across 33 states and territories. A second round of funding put $850 million to work the same way for rural areas of 37 states and territories.

More info about the ReConnect Program is available through the USDA website. (Zack Quaintance)


Tennessee has allocated nearly $447 million to broadband infrastructure investments in the state, officials there have announced.

The state estimates that the money will help bring Internet to more than 150,000 households and businesses that currently are not connected. Funding for the grants comes in part from money allocated to Tennessee by the federal government through the American Rescue Plan. Additionally, another roughly $50 million in Tennessee is going toward broadband adaption and digital literacy work.

The money will come down from the state government to counties through grants. All told, Tennessee received 218 total applications for the grants, which will ultimately grant 75 of those requests.

A full list of money recipients can be found via Tennessee's online announcement. (Zack Quaintance)


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a notice to announce that its Communications Equity and Diversity Council and Media Bureau will be hosting a Digital Skills Gap Symposium and Town Hall on Sept. 22. The event aims to unpack issues facing states and localities regarding digital skills training adoption as the trend increases nationwide.

The event will offer information on actions being taken in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to advance digital literacy. The symposium portion of the event will focus on the Digital Equity Act, the Affordable Connectivity Program and other issues to explore how to best identify underserved populations and expand digital equity. The town hall portion will explore collaboration among these different sectors and the value of community-based training programs.

The event will be available for public viewing on the FCC’s website from 12:00-4:00pm ET. (Julia Edinger)

There has been a lot of debate about the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)’s Proposed Decision 20-02-008 leading up to the Sept. 15 voting meeting. In short, the decision addresses whether recipients of subsidies through the Affordable Connectivity Program and similar federal subsidy programs would also receive maximum subsidies through the California LifeLine program, or whether state funding would be capped when a certain amount of federal assistance is received.

Proponents of the decision believe it will help limit the profits service providers receive, while opponents have stated concern that it would limit communications access for low-income households.

At the public voting meeting on Sept. 15, the decision was delayed for a future commission meeting set to take place on Oct. 6. (Julia Edinger)


The federal government's Internet For All initiative has published a new resource for states that are working to create broadband offices.

The 19-page document — dubbed the Office Creation Checklist — has a checklist for what state's creating a broadband office should do, along with a set of best practices. The guide also provides examples of existing state offices that have done a good job with their formation and their work.

This guide comes as state governments across the country are structuralizing their broadband work. This preparation is especially important at the moment, as the federal government continues to funnel a historic amount of money downward through states to community broadband work.

According to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts last year, all 50 states now have active broadband programs, although the nature of those programs vary. At the time of that report's publication — which was June 2021 — there were 13 states that did not have an office just yet for broadband. (Zack Quaintance)
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.