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What's New in Digital Equity: Watchdog Calls for Federal Tribal Broadband Plan

Plus, Michigan's high-speed Internet office has hired its first chief connectivity officer, the Biden administration earmarks $10 million grants to expand broadband to minority communities, and more.

Rural broadband
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 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report that recommends the federal government establish a centralized strategy and coordinated framework to enhance tribal broadband.

While boosting connectivity has become a priority for all levels of government nationwide since the outbreak of the pandemic, the report found that the federal government had been putting funds toward increased broadband access from 2015 to 2020 for people living on tribal lands. Even so, access in those areas still lags behind access in the rest of the country, with an estimated 18 percent of people who live on tribal lands having no access to broadband, compared to just 4 percent in other areas. The best way to address this, the GAO report notes, is for the White House to create a focused national strategy with "clear roles, goals and performance measures."

The report noted specifically that the American Broadband Initiative (ABI) — the body that is primarily coordinating national broadband advancement efforts — would benefit from creating a framework to address barriers for tribal broadband.

"Without a national strategy and a framework within ABI to focus tribal efforts," the GAO wrote, "broadband access for people living on tribal lands will continue to lag behind the rest of the country, perpetuating the digital divide."

That's the big-picture advice. In addition, the report makes two more specific suggestions as well. The first is that the Executive Office of the President specifically should work on creating the national tribal broadband strategy, taking a leadership role in the work. The second is that the U.S. Department of Commerce create the framework within the ABI.

If ever there were a time for this work to occur, it is now. The federal government has emphasized the importance for getting all residents accessible high-speed Internet, boosting as it does everything from workforce development to health care to education outcomes. Landmark federal funding has been approved and is currently in the process of being distributed, too.

The full report can be found online via the GAO. (Zack Quaintance)


Eric Frederick has been selected to lead the work of the state of Michigan’s new High-Speed Internet Office as the state’s first chief connectivity officer. In this role, he will help develop public and private partnerships and leverage funding from various sources to maximize broadband expansion opportunities.

Frederick spent the past 10 years with Connected Nation Michigan as the vice president of broadband planning and executive director. Connected Nation Michigan is a public-private effort to drive broadband expansion in the state.

The office was created in 2021, and stakeholders have been pushing for the state to staff up for the work to come. Also in 2021, the office released a road map and has since been working to develop a five-year state broadband strategy and digital equity plan. (Julia Edinger)


At the federal level, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded the first five grants of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. This round of grant awardees, totaling over $10 million, include historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and minority-serving institutions.

“America’s minority-serving college and universities are bedrock learning centers that have too often been left behind when it comes to accessing affordable high-speed Internet,” stated Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves in the announcement.

NTIA will continue to review the remaining 200+ applications received during the application window that closed in December 2021. Additional awards will be announced on a rolling basis.

In August 2021, NTIA announced $268 million would be invested in the program, which is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s Internet for All initiative. More information about the grants can be found on the Internet for All website. (Julia Edinger)


Louisiana joined the growing list of states this week rolling out broadband funding news (see the note below about Vermont), but along with that announcement, the state also unveiled several new digital literacy pilot programs.

First things first, the state announced that $130 million of $176 million total American Rescue Plan funds will soon be directed toward investments that can help connect more than 66,000 households and small businesses in the state to reliable high-speed Internet. This is the first phase of broadband investments being funded by the American Rescue Plan, with as much as $46 million remaining to help connectivity in Louisiana.

But as noted above, the money is not all that the state is doing. Louisiana officials have also announced a series of new digital literacy pilot programs. Several state government and state government-adjacent agencies are teaming up on the programs, including ConnectLA — which is Louisiana's broadband office — the Louisiana Department of Education and the State Library of Louisiana.

The effort is aiming to reduce the digital illiteracy rate in various areas of the state by 50 percent over the course of the next five years. One of the first steps in the work is establishing five digital literacy pilot sites across the state, embedded in both rural and urban library branches. Each of those sites will receive $20,000 in funding to be put toward assessing and addressing the community's digital literacy needs.

Part of this will involve the train-the-trainers digital navigators program that has become common in digital literacy work nationwide. Essentially, it means teaching trusted community partners who are already living and working in at-need communities with the skills they need to help folks there learn digital skills. These people are frequently librarians, public servants or staff members within nonprofit organizations. Louisiana expects to train as many as 55 new digital navigators as part of this work.

"Erasing Louisiana's digital divide requires us to pair digital learning opportunities with improved connectivity and affordability," said Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Kim Hunter Reed in a statement. "We are pleased to launch these pilot programs in local libraries supported by local digital navigators because we believe empowering communities is key to strengthening digital literacy." (Zack Quaintance)


In other state news, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) joined several communications union districts to announce additional funding for broadband construction grants.

With the $48.8 million announced last week, this brings the total investment in broadband since the 2021 launch of the VCBB to $100 million. The funding will support the construction of the network that will be the foundation for making universal, high-speed broadband accessible throughout the state.

This builds on the expansion efforts made possible through the $16 million in construction grants that were approved in May 2021 for NEK Broadband and Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom. (Julia Edinger)


Mecklenburg County, N.C., is partnering with the AARP Foundation on a new effort to increase digital skills among older adults, officials announced.

Specifically, the county's Department of Social Services is partnering with the AARP on this work. What's also making this possible is that the AARP Foundation netted a grant from Google that has enabled them to create a broader digital skills training program for older adults called Digital Skills Ready @50+. This program has an emphasis on helping people over 50 who have a low income, with a special focus on women and people of color.

The AARP Foundation will provide instructors and programs related to the work, while Mecklenburg County and its various community partners will implement the programs in the region, with the first series of these classes starting this month and running through September 2022. They will focus on topics such as how to choose a new computer, navigating a smartphone, practicing online safety, using Zoom and more. (Zack Quaintance)


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has appointed Allen Hill to take the role of chief information officer for the agency.

Hill has experience at the federal level, most recently serving as the deputy assistant commissioner for category management with the Office of Information Technology Category for the U.S. General Services Administration. Prior to that, he held the role of director of telecommunications services, and had also served as the director of the Department of Education’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Mark Stephens, managing director, also credited the work of Shaun Costello and Andrea E. Simpson, each of whom took on the role of acting CIO, as the FCC determined who would be appointed as the next CIO. (Julia Edinger)


Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau has released new data tools related to the migration of young adults in the U.S., the bureau announced.

This collaborative effort with Harvard University features a new interactive data tool, data tables and a research paper. The data tools and tables are focused on commuting-zone-to-commuting-zone migration rates across the nation. The data is broken down by race and parental income levels, and it is pulled from deidentified decennial census, survey, and tax data for people born between 1984 and 1992, with the goal of migration between childhood and young adulthood.

The data components can be found at (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.