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Digital Inclusion

FCC’s Jessica Rosenworcel Calls for Wi-Fi School Buses, and Brookings Panelists Agree Now is the Time

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Photo of Nicol Turner Lee from October 2018 by U.S. Commerce Department

April 10, 2020 – Participants in a Brookings Institution meeting on Zoom expressed interest in an off-hand comment FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made about deploying Wi-Fi-enabled buses to provide hot-spots for rural students.

Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation, and Cathy Trimble, principal of the Francis Marion School in Alabama, asked why this practice couldn’t become more widespread.

Wi-Fi in school buses could be a short-term solution for giving students on the wrong side of the digital divide the internet they need to complete their homework, they said.

“As far as I’m concerned, let’s do it, and let’s do it right now,” Rosenworcel, a staunch advocate for eliminating the so-called “homework gap,” said of the idea, during the Wednesday webinar.

Rosenworcel elaborated on her encounter with a farmer in Coachella, California who came up with the idea of using buses to beam broadband after noticing that the tablets that were donated to the students in his district were useless without connectivity.

The practice caught on from there and spread throughout the nation.  In fact, one of the panelists had reported seeing these buses more than once. “My kids think I’m not getting enough sleep ‘cause I keep seeing this bus,” said Turner Lee.

Rosenworcel took her commitment to providing broadband to needy students to its extreme while talking about the release of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed spectrum. “Let me be clear: I want the FCC to solve the homework gap,” Rosenworcel said.

Trimble provided context for what the homework gap felt like on the ground. When her high school was forced to go remote due to the coronavirus, Trimble said that she and her teachers “spent an entire day” contacting students and their parents “to see who had access to Wi-Fi or who had access to the internet.”

Once a list of students who lacked broadband was compiled, she arranged for those students to receive “hard copy packets” of the week’s readings and homework assignments.

Nonetheless, Trimble’s school has persevered despite inadequate broadband. She proudly noted the 100 percent student graduation rate for seniors and 100 percent acceptance into college in a county where the median salary is $23,000 a year.

“If anybody ever makes an investment in this community, I promise you they’ll get an outstanding return from our outstanding young people,” Trimble said.

Trimble also scolded education officials in her county for slacking. She recounted to the panelists how when she first found out about the E-rate program, which is the largest extant fund for donating education technology to needy schools, she also found out that no one in her country had sent in an application. “We need someone advocating for us,” Trimble said.

She also related a story about how excited she and her colleagues were to begin a “Girls Who Code” chapter at her school after attending a seminar by Apple. Trimble organized the club and found support in some female students “only to find the devices were antiquated.”

Turner Lee then coined a term to describe the disparity that Trimble was describing: “broadband gentrification.”

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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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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