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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Approves Reports on Disaster Response and Workforce Training

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Screenshot from the BDAC meeting

November 6, 2020 — Members of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee voted on October 29-30 on reports and recommendations from committee’s three working groups.

The body approved reports completed by the staff of the working groups on Disaster Response and Recovery and Deployment, Job Skills, and Training Opportunities.

However, it moved to revise recommendations presented in the Increasing Broadband Investment in Low-Income Communities working group’s report.

“Each of these working groups fits so well into the mosaic of connectivity issues we’re struggling with during the pandemic,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, during the meeting’s opening remarks. “The three expert reports you are going to be considering go to the heart of three of the issues we need to resolve in order to ensure ubiquitous broadband access and adoption.”

In the face of a global pandemic, the working groups moved to publicize “best practices” for connecting unserved and underserved communities.

In the process, the groups addressed issues for increasing internet deployment and adoption among low-income individuals.

Disaster Response

In July, the FCC ordered the Disaster Response and Recovery working group to prepare a report documenting various strategies stakeholders implemented to deal with the deployment-related challenges presented by COVID-19 pandemic.

After studying different entities responses, the group generated focused on emergency responses, included establishing non-emergency permitting practices that can easily transition in emergency situations and identifying the staff and resources necessary to do so.

The team recommended having a single emergency contact in each municipality and working to foster good relationships and communications with stakeholders.

The group’s report also recognized that as the availability of broadband increases, the challenge of adoption will increasingly demand to be tackled. The Disaster Response working group’s report found that 108 million Americans have broadband available to them but have yet to adopt it.

In its report, the group identified the need for federal funding to address both broadband availability and adoption. It said the federal government has a role to play in adoption, as certain government functions are now solely accessible online, as a result of the pandemic.

Job Skills and Training

The Broadband Infrastructure Deployment, Job Skills, and Training Opportunities working group’s report recommended creating a robust broadband infrastructure workforce and eliminating the tech skills gap, in an effort to get Americans back to work.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has been an advocate for growing the infrastructure workforce, joined the BDAC meeting to introduce the Training Opportunities report. In his remarks, Carr reported that a shortage of technical workers persists, as the U.S. has a 20,000 shortage of tower climbers alone.

According to the panelists, a new study by the National Spectrum Consortium found that 4.6 million jobs will be created as part of the deployment of the 5G wireless standard in the country.

To confront the issue of the government investing in an industry with few workers, the group’s report suggested that the federal government invest in training programs aimed at reskilling the U.S. workforce.

Specifically, the team calls for part of the Congressionally-approved $80 billion budget to deploy broadband infrastructure, be utilized to address telecommunications infrastructure workforce training needs.

The team further noted the importance of infrastructure training programs being implemented and promoted in rural and urban areas equally.

The Increasing Broadband Investment in Low Income Communities report, addressing affordability and digital literacy needs, is proposed to be revisited during BDAC’s December meeting.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

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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