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BroadbandNow Publishes List of Top 10 Trailblazers for Digital Inclusion

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Ten cities have been recognized this year as Digital Inclusion Trailblazers, Tyler Cooper from BroadbandNow reports. 21 million Americans still lack access to a broadband-level internet connection, and roughly 146 million people do not have access to a low-priced plan for residential wired broadband. These cities are leading the way in bringing unprecedented levels of broadband access and awareness to their residents.

Portland, Oregon: With its reputation for being a progressive metropolis committed to the working lifestyles of the future, 98 percent of Portland residents have access to multiple broadband internet connections and 79 percent have access to fiber.

In 2014, the city’s community established the Digital Inclusion Network, a coalition aimed at “raising awareness about digital equity barriers and developing solutions to bridging the digital divide.” In 2018, Mayor Ted Wheeler instituted a city-wide Digital Inclusion Week.

Austin, Texas:  99 percent of Austin residents currently have access to multiple broadband connections. The city’s Unlocking The Connection program helps bring free broadband internet access to low-income communities in partnership with Google Fiber, as well as provide refurbished computers and digital literacy courses.

The city’s Grant For Technology Opportunities Program also provides financial assistance for upgrading computer labs and improving free, basic web access for all residents.

Seattle, Washington: Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund has helped more than 43,000 residents create resumes, use email services, and take digital literacy courses for the first time. The city is actively engaged in outreach projects such as East African Community Services and Helping Link programs, both of which were awarded grants to replace aging computer infrastructure and provide digital literacy courses to minority communities around Seattle.

Raleigh, North Carolina:  While not as widely known for its tech economy as some of the other cities on this list, Raleigh’s local government has been doing excellent work fostering connectivity and inclusion for nearly a decade. Since 2011, Raleigh’s Raleigh Digital Connectors program and its 163 members have taught computer skills to 3,376 individuals and refurbished 892 computers over the past several years.

Bradley Upchurch, the Digital Inclusion Manager at the Raleigh Housing and Neighborhoods Department said that the Digital Connecters program has been instrumental in helping to bridge the digital divide in the city.

Charlotte, North Carolina:  Charlotte’s tech scene is growing rapidly, and the city is making a concerted effort to ensure that all its residents can reap the benefits. The goal of the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance is to reduce the digital divide by digital literacy courses, funding opportunities, and other resources for the community to take advantage of.

Boston, Massachusetts: Boston has long been a champion for digital inclusion, helping to establish the Tech Goes Home program back in 2000. The program has trained more than 30,000 people and distributed more than 20,000 new computers to graduates, 80 percent of which have household incomes lower than $35,000 per year.

In 2017, Boston allocated $35,000 in grants to local organizations aimed at bridging the digital divide. New initiatives such as the Digital Equity Fund are working to ensure that all residents have the means and skill sets necessary to thrive in a digital economy.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The city of Philadelphia recognizes that robust connectivity is key to a healthy populace, and this is especially evident when looking at the work they’ve done to foster access within city limits. The city’s KEYSPOT program has established more than 50 dedicated public access centers, providing digital literacy courses and high-speed broadband to more than 80,000 residents every year.

San Jose, California: Already one of the best-connected cities in the U.S, San Jose’s local government has adopted a creative solution to completely bridge their digital divide. Earlier this year, Mayor Sam Liccardo announced the Digital Inclusion Fund, which will help tax wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon deploy broadband and install 5G small cells.

The fund will also provide grants to local organizations seeking to offer digital equity education and resources.

Kansas City, Missouri: Kansas City’s Digital Inclusion Fund aims to provide resources and training to “support local projects that provide computer access; make it easy to get online; help make the internet relevant, exciting, and beneficial for new users; and increase people’s digital skills.“

Additionally, organizations like the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion and Connecting For Good are dedicated local advocacy groups that help low-income residents find free Wi-Fi and computers, as well as offer additional digital literacy training within the city limits.

Madison, Wisconsin: One of the lesser known but rapidly growing tech hubs, Madison is quickly making a name for itself as being a champion for all its residents’ right to access the internet. The city is currently partnering with CTC Technology and Energy to design and implement a citywide fiber network.

Additionally, organizations like Everyone On Madison and DANEnet are centered around providing access to IT services and general computer literacy courses in the city.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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