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Digital Inclusion

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr Links 5G Deployment and T-Mobile Merger to Addressing Digital Divide

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Photo of Dick Wiley and Brendan Carr by Masha Abarinova

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2019 – Strategies that include and support historically underserved groups are necessary to address America’s digital divide, broadband experts said at Thursday’s Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council conference.

In a keynote question and answer session, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Dick Wiley – who served under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — discussed with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr the ways in which the agency can improve broadband inclusion.

5G wireless services, Carr said, will be the next step in achieving broadband equity. The transition from 4G to 5G service will be just as impactful as the move from the previous generation of 3G coverage, he said.

Carr also underscored the importance of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger for streamlining 5G wireless infrastructure. These two companies combined, he said, will unleash an unprecedented level of competition and facilitate a 5G buildout of 99 per cent.

The topic of 5G services includes the discussion of mid-band or “C-Band” spectrum. However, Carr advised the broadband community to not overly rely on obtaining one type of spectrum.

The United States currently has the most high-band spectrum in the world, he said. To provide high-speed broadband to both rural and urban areas, there needs to be a combination of high, mid and low-band spectrum available.

For that reason, Carr said, a transparent, public C-Band auction that frees up at least 300 Megahertz of spectrum is needed.

But just as it is crucial to “future-proof” 5G deployment, Carr encouraged reforming current programs, such as the Universal Service Fund, to provide more accessibility to marginalized Americans.

Yet raising USF’s contribution factor, he said, could make broadband service less affordable for low-income Americans. Similarly, imposing caps on media ownership can promote diversity but also hinder competition among providers.

Also in attendance were some industry leaders, who advised how to prepare people for the “jobs of the future.”

“5G” is not only a buzzword but a symbol of innovation, said Marie Sylla-Dixon, vice president of Federal Government and External Affairs at T-Mobile. Not only will it foster digital inclusion, she said, but it will also change how the U.S. interacts with the rest of the world.

It’s critical to determine the skills workers need for future jobs and apprenticeships. Current technology is making a lot of jobs disappear, said Marcella Gadson, director of Communications and Policy Research at MMTC.

Despite the job disruption, she said, new technology can be an opportunity for low-income Americans to advance their careers and take on life-changing tasks to aid the digital economy.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion Leaders a Critical Step to Closing Digital Divide: National League of Cities

The National League of Cities said government leaders need to have ‘multiple points of engagement’ with communities.

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Lena Geraghty, National League of Cities director of urban innovation

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – To understand the digital divide, cities need to include digital equity leaders in their broadband needs assessment programs, the National League of Cities said at an event on community connectivity challenges Wednesday.

A broadband needs assessment would allow city leaders to explore the extent of the digital divide in their communities, said Lena Geraghty, the National League of Cities’ director of urban innovation.

“[A needs assessment] enable city leaders to dig into who’s being excluded, what’s currently available in your city, and what solutions city leaders can use” to close the digital divide, she said.

“The community is going to know best about where access exists, where gaps exist, and the needs that will make connectivity better,” Geraghty said. To get the best picture of a community’s need, stakeholders must find and include the community’s digital equity leaders in the data-gathering process, she added.

“These could be people that are knowledgeable about digital equity or people that are experiencing the digital divide,” she said. “Think really broadly about what it means to be a leader and the type of information these folks can bring to bear in solving the digital divide in your communities.”

Geraghty said it may be useful to formalize the leaders’ work by creating a broadband working group or ad hoc committee led by the city’s government. “Giving some roles and responsibilities can help everyone move in the same in direction, there’s agreement, and really clear goals and outcomes.”

Geraghty added that it’s important for government leaders to establish multiple points of engagement for the community. “It’s not enough to gather data or information from people once,” she said. “The state of access to the internet and devices is always changing,” so leaders should create multiple touch points for community input.

The National League of Cities released its Digital Equity Playbook for cities in December, walking readers through how they can promote digital equity in their cities. The playbook has a four-step process on how to get started with digital equity.

By walking readers through the process of connecting with the community, evaluating the connectivity landscape, gathering foundational information and reporting on findings, city leaders will be prepared to target broadband funding to unserved and underserved areas in their communities.

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Digital Inclusion

Infrastructure Bill Supports Digital Inclusion, Says Advocacy Group

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes billions for states to expand digital inclusion efforts.

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Screenshot of Amy Huffman

WASHINGTON, December 10, 2021 – National Digital Inclusion Association Policy Director Amy Huffman explicated the role of the recent federal infrastructure legislation – and its support for digital inclusion and digital equity – in a Tuesday webinar.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42.5 billion in the Broadband Equity and Deployment program. IIJA also allocates $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act.

The Digital Equity Act funds are designed to help improve states and local governments’ digital inclusion efforts. The federal government recognizes that states, local governments, and practitioners “who already are embedded in your communities are the trusted resources in your communities that you all are the best ones to do digital inclusion,” Huffman said.

“You’ll see that ethos has made its way throughout all of the both the Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program” of the broader legislation.

The Digital Equity Act codifies the definitions of “digital equity” and “digital inclusion.” Digital equity is our “goal,” said Huffman.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve, we want to make sure that we live in a nation where everyone, every individual and community has the capacity for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy,” she said. Digital inclusion involves the programs, policies and tools that help the nation achieve a digitally equitable state.

Indeed, the Digital Equity Act contains two programs: the State Digital Equity program and the Competitive Grant program.

The Act also creates three grant funds. Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, the digital equity competitive grant program will supply money for states to do digital equity work.

The program is split into planning grants and capacity grants: Planning grants help states create digital equity plans, while capacity grants give money to states to implement those plans.

The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Each state will receive at least $100 million, and use an additional formula for determining how much additional funding states receive. Eligible grantees are all U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories. Subgrantees can be cooperatives such as telephone or electric member cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and public-private partnerships.

Each state’s plan funded by these grant programs must create “measurable objectives for documenting and promoting various digital inclusion activities that will advance the covered populations pursuit of digital equity and closing of these barriers,” Huffman said.

“The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.”

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Digital Inclusion

Despite General Satisfaction with E-rate Program, Tribal Libraries Are Being Left Behind

Tribal community leaders are concerned over the effectiveness of outreach methods the FCC uses to fund broadband in tribal libraries.

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Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2021 – Leaders of efforts to expand broadband in Indigenous communities are sounding the alarm to the Federal Communications Commission, saying that its E-rate program to supply libraries with funding for internet infrastructure is not effectively aiding tribal libraries despite extensive use of the program by non-tribal libraries.

Separate events held Wednesday heard this contrasting experience, when in the morning, E-rate compliance service firm Funds for Learning held a session to share generally positive experiences from a survey it conducted of what E-rate applicants thought of the program, and specifically its application portal. The program, which is supported by the Universal Service Fund, provides schools and libraries with broadband subsidies to keep students connected.

Hours later that day, the FCC held a virtual listening session for tribal leaders and staff to address a lack of E-rate broadband funding requests from tribal libraries.

“Nearly 40 percent of respondents had never heard of e-rate,” chat messaged meeting attendee Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, referencing an Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, & Museums (ATALM) survey of tribal libraries.

“Many of those who had felt that the program was too complicated to apply for,” she said.

Susan Feller, president and CEO of the ATALM, said that tribal libraries do not see relevance for themselves in E-rate funds.

Low staff numbers causing fewer tribal applicants

Also brought up in the meeting as a possible explanation for the rarity of E-rate applications from tribal libraries was that the libraries often have a low staff capacity and seldom employ grant writers or part time employees who could assist in applying to funding opportunities.

According to Jim Dunstan, founder of Mobius Legal Group and lawyer for the Navajo Nation, many tribes are both E-rate providers and applicants for E-rate funds, causing technical problems during application for E-rate funds.

The Funds for Learning’s survey found that 73 percent of respondents planned on submitting an E-rate broadband funding application in 2022, with 46 percent saying they felt “strongly” that they would apply. Connectivity results for Indigenous nations are still low, as FCC Emergency Connectivity Fund money has gone to tribes in just nine states, while strong digital infrastructure remains rare in many Native American communities.

The response rate for the survey was higher than the response rate in each of the last four years of the survey’s administration from 2018 to 2020.

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