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What’s New in Digital Equity: The Digital Divide’s Generational Impact

Plus, there’s a lot of news coming out of Utah’s Broadband Center, Vermont officials have announced millions in broadband construction grants, new poll finds overwhelming bipartisan support for net neutrality and more.

A younger man showing an older man something on a computer.
A new report from the Belfer Center at Harvard University has taken a broad look at the digital divide, summarizing its economic consequences as well as the impact that it has across generations.

Dubbed The Economic Consequences and Generational Impact of the Digital Divide, the report is the work of the center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project, which works to ensure that emerging tech is developed and managed in ways that serve the public good. Released this month, the report offers nine broad findings about the digital divide.

Chief among these items is that even a massive influx of broadband funding will not cure widespread digital inequities, at least not if the regulatory policies and industry practices that created it in the first place are not also changed. This, of course, is especially relevant right now given the unprecedented federal investment in broadband and connectivity currently underway in the United States.

In addition, the report found that digital equity is best served through public and private cooperation on “consumer-focused public policies” at all levels of government, including federal, state and local agencies. The digital divide, it noted, is also far more expansive than is conveyed by current broadband data access, which inherently doesn’t speak to the entirety of the challenge. Unsurprisingly, the report’s analysis of broadband access and adoption rates also found a direct correlation between low-income areas and those that lack adoption.

“The race and income levels of disconnected populations were remarkably similar regardless of geography,” the authors of the report wrote.

The findings also spoke to what’s at stake with digital inclusion work, noting that digital inequities exacerbate other social inequities, creating a ripple effect throughout the nation’s economy. When it comes to fixing this, the limitations that low- and middle-income Americans have for increasing their earning power also come into play, given that meaningful digital citizenship has the power to improve prospects for higher education, economic mobility, health care and more.

However, if history is any indication, there is reason to be hopeful, according to the report.

“The U.S. has a long history of investing in science and technology to boost economic growth and mitigate harm,” the findings note. “In addition to developing public policies that center the high-speed connectivity needs of today and tomorrow, investing in digital equity would exponentially boost economic opportunities and create cost savings for generations to come.”

Interested parties can download the report directly from the Belfer Center. (Zack Quaintance)

EFF DECLARES OPPOSITION TO CALIFORNIA LEGISLATION AB 2749


An announcement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization dedicated to defending digital civil liberties, has formally announced opposition to a piece of legislation in California sponsored by AT&T. EFF states that the bill, AB 2479, would undermine legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July 2021, which provided historic opportunities for rural broadband expansion.

The bill would amend the state’s new grant program by prohibiting the state’s Public Utilities Commission from requiring providers to offer affordable services to all residents. In addition, the bill would require the state to treat AT&T’s wireless offerings, which EFF describes as “inferior,” as being “equal to 21st-century-ready fiber infrastructure.”

The organization also lists concerns that the “anti-rural-fiber and anti-affordability provisions” in the bill have had no hearing, the low-income exemption is insufficient and the legislation undermines the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s prioritization of fiber infrastructure. (Julia Edinger)

CALIFORNIA PREPS FOR 3,000 MILES OF BROADBAND INFRASTRUCTURE


In other California broadband news, the state Department of Technology has awarded contracts that will provide the necessary optical fiber and other materials to build 3,000 miles of broadband infrastructure. The contracts were awarded to two vendors and total nearly $225 million.

“With this milestone in place, we can continue our planning with Caltrans to begin installing the fiber as soon as possible,” said Russ Nichols, acting director of the California Department of Technology and chair of the Middle Mile Advisory Committee, in the announcement.

Purchasing the materials is the necessary first step for California to construct its middle-mile network in the coming years, which is expected to be completed by December 2026. The state’s Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative is a partnership that aims to expand and strengthen broadband connections throughout the state in an equitable manner by creating an open-access, middle-mile network that will bring access to unserved and underserved communities in the state. (Julia Edinger)

UTAH BROADBAND CENTER ANNOUNCES GRANT WINNER, LOOKS TO MAKE NEW HIRE


The Utah Broadband Center has been busy, rolling out a new job opening for a program manager while also announcing a list of grant recipients.

The Utah Broadband Center program manager job posting is up online now. The center is housed within the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, and as the posting notes, the program manager would be tasked with helping make high-speed Internet available to every household in the state.

“The program manager will assist in administering the state’s first Broadband Access Grant, stand up additional funding distribution programs with federal funds and find ways to creatively connect every household in the state to high-speed Internet,” the posting reads.

In addition, the center also announced its 2022 Broadband Access Grant recipients, including All West/Utah Inc., Box Elder County, CentraCom Interactive, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the South Utah Valley Electric Service District. The money each of them will receive is specifically intended to help fund last-mile broadband work in rural and underserved areas throughout the state.

The grants range from $420,000 to $5.8 million, and the money for them comes from the $10 million the state was awarded through the American Rescue Plan Act to support Internet access and adoption. (Zack Quaintance)

VERMONT COMMUNITIES TO RECEIVE $16 MILLION IN BROADBAND GRANTS


More than $16 million in broadband construction grants is slated to bring high-speed fiber broadband to Bolton and several other towns in the state, according to an announcement this week. The two funded projects must be completed within the next 24 months.

The Communications Union District serving the Northeast Kingdom was approved for a grant totaling just under $16 million from the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB). This will enable NEK Broadband to construct 215 miles of network, which could connect 1,479 households.

The second grant, totaling $421,000, was awarded to Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT) to complete its fiber-to-the-home project for the remaining 500 locations in Bolton. The town will be contributing $200,000 towards the effort. WCVT will contribute more than $1 million to cover the remaining cost.

During the month of June, the VCBB will consider applications for other projects, as $245 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding has been appropriated for broadband by the state. (Julia Edinger)

KANSAS NAMES RECIPIENTS OF BROADBAND ACCELERATION GRANT PROGRAM


Eleven recipients of the Broadband Acceleration Grant program were named this week, bringing $5 million to broadband infrastructure projects in the state. Three projects involve partnerships with municipalities and include an additional $875,000 match from the community. Paired with $5 million in matching funds, the effort will see more than $10 million invested in 10 rural counties in Kansas.

The 10-year program, launched in 2020, is administered by the Kansas Office of Broadband Development and funded through the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program.

As stated in the announcement by Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz, these grants will pair with federally funded broadband investments through the bipartisan infrastructure law to help deliver broadband throughout the state. (Julia Edinger)

POLL SHOWS BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR NET NEUTRALITY


A new public survey conducted by the University of Maryland has found that there is bipartisan support for net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality protections were rolled back by the Federal Communications Commission during Donald Trump’s presidency, when Republicans had a majority on the commission. The poll, however, found that roughly 66 percent of Republican voters favor net neutrality rules, indicating a likely disconnect between Republican politicians and their voters.

Currently, the FCC is split evenly between two Republican commissioners and two Democratic commissioners. President Joe Biden’s nominee for the fifth slot, Gigi Sohn, favors net neutrality protections, but Sohn remains unconfirmed, with major media outlets reporting that a well-funded campaign is underway to block Sohn’s confirmation.

The survey was conducted by the university’s Program for Public Consultation. (Zack Quaintance)
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
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.