What’s New in Digital Equity: RI Lawmakers Call for Broadband Council
Plus, a rural broadband association has launched a new digital inclusion series; New York is hiring its first-ever digital equity director at the state level; ConnectMaine has won a $28 million grant; and much more.
Read our March magazine feature about digital equity and cities here!
RHODE ISLAND LAWMAKERS CALL FOR BROADBAND ADVISORY COUNCIL
Three Rhode Island state lawmakers are calling for the creation of a new broadband advisory council.
The call came at the end of a press release in which the lawmakers — Reps. Deborah Ruggiero, Lauren H. Carson and Terri Cortvriend — questioned whether investments by the private sector were enough to actually get residents connected in the state’s Aquidneck Island area. The creation of the advisory council was the big ask within this questioning.
Rep. Ruggiero said in a statement, “...the Rhode Island Broadband Advisory Council is needed for the state to coalesce around technology trends and create roadmaps for municipalities to access federal dollars and for how a private cable company can partner with a public entity for innovative fiber broadband over the next four to five years.”
And, indeed, there is quite a bit of federal funding coming down for both broadband connectivity efforts and digital equity work, two undertakings that are heavily related, if not inextricable. Some advocates in the digital inclusion space have voiced concerns about federal dollars going to some of the biggest private-sector Internet service providers, who have in large part for many years dictated the location, cost and speed of connections in the United States.
A statewide broadband advisory council, the lawmakers noted in their release, would also foster “transparency as the state receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars to deploy fiber broadband.”
Some sort of oversight body for broadband connectivity efforts within state government is an idea that has spread across the country in recent years. Indeed, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 35 states have codified such groups, whether they be designated advisory councils, task forces, commissions or authorities. The ways these states have done this include both legislative actions as well as executive orders from governors.
Rhode Island legislators have previously floated this idea, going so far as to introduce a bill in January 2021 that would have created a broadband council. That bill, however, died in committee. (Zack Quaintance)
NTIA HIRES ITS FIRST DIGITAL EQUITY DIRECTOR
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has tapped Angela Thi Bennett as the agency’s first-ever digital equity director. Notably, it is the first time a federal government position has included “digital equity” in the title.
She will start in the position March 28, moving from her current role as director of advocacy and impact at DigitalC. Thi Bennett has also been involved in digital equity work with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for years.
In her role as digital equity director, she will be charged with directing the allocation of $2.75 billion for digital equity that was included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (Julia Edinger)
NY HIRING DIRECTOR OF DIGITAL EQUITY FOR CONNECTALL
Empire State Development, New York’s economic development agency, listed a job opening for director of digital equity. The position will oversee digital equity initiatives for the state’s recently established ConnectALL Office.
The hire will engage with stakeholders to develop a New York State Digital Equity Plan, in addition to establishing an ongoing grant program to support digital inclusion efforts.
The requirements, as stated in the listing, include five years of experience in one or more of the following fields: economic development, government, planning, public administration, digital services, procurement of public services, grant administration or related business. A graduate degree is preferred, but a bachelor’s degree with relevant experience may be expected. Prior experience working with local government entities in the state is also preferred.
More information on the position and how to apply can be found in the job listing. (Julia Edinger)
NTCA - THE RURAL BROADBAND ASSOCIATION LAUNCHES NEW DIGITAL INCLUSION SERIES
NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association has launched a new digital inclusion series aimed at helping their membership — which is comprised of rural broadband providers — in their efforts to be inclusive.
The series is split into four parts: the fundamentals of digital inclusion, developing digital inclusion initiatives, delivering on digital inclusion initiatives, and digital inclusion case studies. Each part is available exclusively to members of the NTCA, with the first part being made available now.
In a tweet, the group noted that the first part covers the meanings of key phrases in the space, including digital inclusion, digital equity and digital literacy. It also offers some examples of how NTCA members across the country have encouraged digital inclusion in the communities where they provide service.
NTCA is proud to announce a new Digital Inclusion Series to help members increase access to the internet and digital literacy in their communities. The first part of the series, "Fundamentals of Digital Inclusion," is now available: https://t.co/23MMktz0Q0 pic.twitter.com/vTmAHmO3RY— NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association (@NTCAconnect) March 24, 2022
As noted above, there is an unprecedented amount of federal funding for work like this headed down to the community level. While the ways that the money will be distributed are still being honed, clarified and created, getting rural America connected is a major goal of these resources. Advocates in the space say that simply building new broadband infrastructure without considering other inclusion factors such as speeds, digital literacy and the cost of subscribing, will not solve the problem.
More information about this related digital inclusion series can be found on the NTCA’s website. (Zack Quaintance)
CONNECT MAINE SECURES $28 MILLION NTIA GRANT
In other broadband funding news, ConnectMaine — a public agency that works to connect every household in that state — has received a $28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program.
In a statement announcing the funding, state officials estimated the money would help them connect nearly 15,000 new locations to high-speed Internet, the vast majority in rural locations. Maine’s geography means the state faces a unique set of connectivity challenges, having to account for households atop mountains as well as isolated communities on islands off its coast. Winning this new grant is the product of work that began back in May 2021, when ConnectMaine started preparing an application for the money.
Part of that application process involved a request for proposals (RFP) that netted three Internet service providers as partners in a buildout should Maine win the money. Now that the state has the funding, the projects will touch seven different areas in the state. Three projects funded by this grant will be community-owned, with those being located in Isle au Haut, Somerville, and Washington.
The NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program has now awarded 13 grants nationwide, totaling more than $277 million for projects with the potential to connect as many as 133,000 unserved households, the vast majority of them in rural areas. (Zack Quaintance)
FCC OPENS THIRD APPLICATION WINDOW FOR EMERGENCY CONNECTIVITY FUND
Following several requests, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will now open a third application filing window for its Emergency Connectivity Fund, the group announced.
The new window will run from April 28 until May 13, and as with previous windows, it will allow eligible schools and libraries to apply for money to put toward devices and Internet service. The Emergency Connectivity Fund is slated to award at least $1 billion, with FCC officials noting in the announcement that this will likely be the last filing window.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund first launched in June 2021, and the FCC estimates it has now paid for more than 10 million devices and 5 million broadband connections. The funding round before this one gave out $68 million through 140 schools and 25 libraries nationwide. (Zack Quaintance).
FIRST ROUND OF COMMENTS ON DIGITAL DISCRIMINATION DUE TO FCC BY MAY 16
Last week, we told you that the FCC was planning to accept public comments on how to define digital discrimination, and now the commission has set a deadline for those comments of May 16. A subsequent deadline for reply comments is set for June 30.
The goal here is to create an accepted and shared understanding of what constitutes digital discrimination on the path to addressing this as a challenge. Specifically, the inquiry wants to know how the FCC might implement provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that would codify a requirement for the commission to combat digital discrimination and promote equal access to broadband.
The infrastructure act formally tasked the FCC with combating both digital discrimination and digital redlining. (Zack Quaintance)
PA. DEPT OF LABOR & INDUSTRY AWARDS FUNDING FOR DIGITAL LITERACY TRAINING
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) announced nearly $900,000 in Digital Literacy and Workforce Development Grants last week to help workers in the state get the digital skills they need to use the technology common in workplaces. This is the state’s second round of digital literacy funding, building on over $1 million awarded in 2021 to support computer skills training.
“Technology used in the workplace will always evolve, so our workforce development strategies must also evolve to secure Pennsylvania’s competitive edge in the global economy,” L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in the announcement.
The grants will support 21 recipients in various projects, with trainings ranging from basic computer skills to workplace application software to the dangers of the digital world. Some of these programs aim specifically to support English language learners and immigrants. More details about the recipients can be found in the announcement. (Julia Edinger)
GOV. MIKE DEWINE ANNOUNCES BROADBAND PROJECTS IN OHIO
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted recently announced broadband expansion projects for households in Ohio without reliable Internet access. The Broadband Expansion Authority last week authorized BroadbandOhio to award $232 million in grants as part of the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program (ORBEGP).
The funding will support 33 broadband expansion projects that will affect 31 counties in the state. The grants awarded last week are part of the DeWine-Husted administration’s Broadband Strategy to connect households throughout Ohio.
The ORBEGP was established in House Bill 2, and the grants were funded as part of Ohio’s operating budget for 2022-2023. The program is part of DeWine’s Ohio BUILDS Initiative — Broadband, Utilities, and Infrastructure for Local Development Success — that was launched in 2021. (Julia Edinger)
L.A. COUNTY EXPLORES COMMUNITY WIRELESS NETWORK
Los Angeles County — the most populous county in the nation — has released a request for statement of qualifications (RFSQ) aimed at building a community wireless network that would help connect all residents to the Internet.
This network is intended to be a five-year pilot program that would provide free high-speed Internet to residents in their homes in the county’s underserved communities via a public-private partnership. County officials said via email they are aiming to create a shortlist of network providers who are qualified for this work, both the deployment and operation of the network.
The next step after a shortlist will see the county releasing work orders for designated neighborhoods, inviting companies to then bid on deployment. The demonstration areas for this RFSQ are South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley. These are all parts of the Los Angeles metro area with the highest density of unconnected households. However, the pilot program is not limited to just those areas, with any underserved community in the county being eligible.
The last part of the partnership is that the county has announced its intent to give access to infrastructure owned by government for deployment. This includes areas controlled by the county, the city of Los Angeles, area school districts and any other municipal agencies.
The full list of the applicable infrastructure is available in the RFSQ, which can be found on the county’s website. (Zack Quaintance)