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Digital Inclusion

Building a Bridge over the Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar from February 2019 by Lorie Shaull used with permission

December 11, 2020 – Last week we began our broad overview of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, sweeping legislation that calls for a $100 billion investment in broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved parts of the country, as well as federal funding and coordinated support to meet the myriad of barriers that prevent tens of millions of Americans from having access to affordable and reliable Internet connectivity.

The bill (H.R. 7302) has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. The Senate version of the bill (S. 4131), which was filed by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, has stalled, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has “has buried the legislation in his graveyard,” in the words of Rep. Clyburn.

In this second-installment of a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation, we look at the “Title I – Digital Equity” portion of the bill.

New Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG)

The first thing the legislation does is requires the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information to establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG) within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The new office, which would be allocated a $26 million annual budget, would run point on federal outreach to communities who lack access, or need better broadband access, via regional workshops, trainings, and the drafting of reports that would provide guidance on best-practices.

The office would also be required to track federal spending on any broadband related expenditures, as well as coordinate with other federal agencies to conduct a study on how affordability factors into households’ lack of connectivity and what might be done to make broadband more affordable.

Another important duty of the OICG is a requirement to coordinate with other federal agencies to streamline the application process for assistance for federal programs that support broadband deployment and adoption.

Digital Equity Grant Programs

Where the legislation starts to get interesting is in the subsection on the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, in which the bill calls for the allocation of $60 million for grants to help states develop a “Digital Equity Plan” and $625 million in grants to help states implement those plans, with no less than five percent of the grant funds to be set aside specifically for Indian tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

This grant program represents something new and important because federal funds for broadband are typically funneled to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or network owners, not so much for planning.

Another new grant program the legislation would establish is the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, which would appropriate an additional $625 million to award grants to local entities, tribal governments, Alaska Native entities, Native Hawaiian organizations, non-profits, anchor institutions, educational entities, and workforce development programs for “digital inclusion activities,” which the legislation defines as initiatives that provide for reliable broadband service; Internet-enabled devices; digital literacy training; technical support; and promotion of online privacy and cybersecurity.

One small but important detail in the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program portion of the bill is that these particular funds are not subsidies to make Internet access more affordable – they are for activities to improve digital inclusion, such as raising awareness of subsidies already available to those unable to afford broadband service, including subsidies available through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administered Lifeline program.

For those counting at home, the legislation calls for $625 million to go to states and another $625 million to go directly to those entities doing digital inclusion activities.

The last part of Digital Equity Programs section requires the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information to report to Congress annually on these grants and assess how each grant had been implemented.

Bridging the Affordability Gap

The next section of the legislation – Broadband Service for Low-Income Consumers – looks to provide relief for households who cannot afford to pay for broadband services, which has become especially acute during the pandemic. The federal government does not bother to track the cost of broadband service, despite that recommendation in its own 2010 National Broadband Plan [PDF] (see recommendation 4.2 on page 43), but U.S. prices for Internet access generally reflect a failed market.

A $9 billion appropriation to be administered by the FCC establishes a “Broadband Connectivity Fund” for qualified households to receive up to a $50 monthly benefit, or $75 per month on tribal lands, that would go towards the monthly price of Internet service. Eligibility would be determined based on whether a member of the household qualifies for Lifeline, is enrolled in a free/reduced school lunch program, or has been recently unemployed.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be required to offer eligible households broadband service at a reduced price equal to the benefit and then be reimbursed by the FCC. In addition to the monthly benefit for service, the legislation also includes reimbursements of up to $100 for ISPs to provide a device per eligible household.

In the following subsection, the legislation looks to remedy the botched FCC roll out of the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier with a $200 million grant program to help states participate. What started in 1985 as a way for the FCC to provide discounted local phone service to low-income consumers was expanded in 2016 to include broadband services.

As the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society notes:

“the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier is intended to allow a Lifeline provider to quickly determine a person’s eligibility by searching the databases of the government assistance programs. But in a rush to say that the verifier had launched (FCC Chairman Ajit) Pai forced states to connect to the system before they were ready. As a result, a majority of states still have not connected their databases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and other qualified government assistance programs to the verifier. This means that qualified Lifeline recipients are being mistakenly rejected from Lifeline. Given that more than 33 percent of Lifeline recipients qualify under the SNAP program, it follows that large numbers of eligible Americans are being denied benefits.”

To really bring the point home, the legislation specifically requires the FCC to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up automated connections between the National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier and the National Accuracy Clearinghouse for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Connecting Students and Urban Healthcare Providers

The following subsection — E-Rate Support for Wi-Fi Hotspots, Other Equipment, and Connected Devices — is aimed specifically at schools. It appropriates $5 billion for a “Connectivity Fund” that would provide support for schools and libraries (including Tribal schools and libraries) to purchase equipment such as Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and other connected devices, as well as funding for advanced telecommunications and information services.

The existing E-rate program, which was established to help schools and libraries access affordable broadband service, is limited to on-campus spending. The additional funds would expand the E-Rate program to help fund broadband connectivity off-campus, as advocated for by SHLB and resisted by the Trump Administration.

The legislation does not overlook addressing the connectivity challenges for disadvantaged students in higher education. In the subsection Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need, the bill appropriates $1 billion for an “Emergency Higher Education Connectivity Fund” that would help pay for Internet service and equipment such as laptops and modems for students at historically Black universities, Hispanic-serving institutions of higher learning, tribal colleges, and rural-serving institutions.

The last subsection of the Digital Equity portion of the bill focuses on healthcare broadband expansion. Currently, the Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF) Program provides a 65% discount on eligible broadband connectivity expenses for eligible rural health care providers (HCPs). This part of the legislation proposes expansion to establish a $2 billion “Telehealth Connectivity Fund” to include urban healthcare providers in the Healthcare Connect Fund.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, on transparency.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy, Outreach as Important as Physical Infrastructure, Panel Hears

Digital literacy gap and lack of outreach are part of the digital divide.

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Screenshot of National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer at TLC event in 2019

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 – Broadband advocates argued Thursday that outreach and digital literacy are as important as infrastructure and are necessary to close the digital divide.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer explained during a Protocol event Thursday that the government’s considerations need to extend beyond the deployment of physical broadband infrastructure and should be equally focused on addressing digital literacy and adoption efforts in underserved and unserved communities.

Siefer listed several pitfalls that are often overlooked and only broaden the digital divide. Among them, she listed fees tied to digital literacy, such as securing devices to access the internet and the tech support necessary to make them usable.

Additionally, she addressed the lack of trust that exists between historically underserved or unserved communities.

“We have to understand the reasons that folks would not take free internet,” Siefer said about previous adoption programs. “I think we learned that lesson again and again at the height of the pandemic when lots of folks were trying to solve the affordability issues [by] paying for community members’ internet, and community members were saying ‘no,’ and they just walk away because free internet sounds like a scam.”

She said that those running programs designed to help these communities have to consider the unique issues facing each community and then evaluate who the communities trust and how best to get information to them.

“There may be device issues, there may be privacy and security concerns, or maybe other digital skills/needs that a person has,” Siefer said. “So, we have to address all of their needs. Because if we think we’re only going to fix it by addressing one we’re not going to get to the results that we want to get to.”

NTIA head explains broadband infrastructure process

In separate remarks at the event, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson outlined a roadmap for states to follow to receive federal funding allocated as part of the Commerce agency’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, which will distribute $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson explained that in order for states to receive the funding they have been allotted, they must provide plans that lay out how they will handle their grant making procedures, and that plan must be approved by the NTIA. “[The NTIA] has been given the authority to approve the initial plans that states put together,” Davidson said. “Only [on the initial plan] has been approved does the first tranche of money go out.”

This first portion of funding will only amount to 20 percent of the total sum the state can get. Following this dispersion of the initial 20 percent, states would have to submit a final plan and have it approved by the NTIA before the following 80 percent will be dispersed.

“We will have a lot of oversight to make sure that states are following through on the requirements of the statute and are meeting the requirements,” Davidson added. “There will also be a lot of grant program oversight to make sure that the money is being spent wisely – to make sure that the sub-grantees who get the money are actually following through on their commitments.”

“We know that we are going to have to partner with [states] and also offer them help,” Davidson said. “Different states are in really different situations. “We know that we are going to have to partner with them and support them – that is going to be a key part of what we do here in the federal government.”

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Divide Impacting Access to Justice, Conference Hears

Some lawyers say their clients are having a difficult time getting access to the legal system without connectivity.

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Screenshot of Olivia Sideman at the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference on Tuesday

WASHINGTON, March 31, 2022 – A public defender from California said Tuesday that clients of lawyers are being disadvantaged by the lack of connectivity.

At the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference hosted by Next Century Cities, Olivia Sideman said her clients were at a disadvantage if they did not have an adequate connection or if they lacked digital literacy, meaning they did not know how to use technology to communicate, learn, find information, etc.

Sideman stated that the digital divide can mean that some clients cannot contact their lawyer, make mandatory virtual court appearances, or participate in court-issued online classes that will lessen their sentence. In other cases, while clients can complete courses, they often struggle to print out the certificate.

Tuesday’s panel event included discussion about a recently published report with a panel of various guests that played a part in the creation of the report. The report, titled “Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement,” concluded that remote hearings should be optional, that the digital divide exacerbates criminal justice inequalities the system is trying to eliminate, and that mobile internet service and devices are inadequate.

The report then offered its own recommendations, aided by experts like Sideman, such as partnering with community organizations, supporting local solutions, and investing in adoption as well as access.

In the report, Sideman said the digital divide is “another way in which our clients’ rights are overlooked by the court, another way in which this entire system tramples on our clients rights…These sorts of experiences undermine faith in the justice system and civic institutions.”

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