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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

Digital Inclusion Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents

Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.

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Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”

Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”

This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.

Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.

“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.

These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.

Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide

Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.

Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.

But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.

The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.

Amy Huffman, Munirih Jester, Paolo Balboa, Miles Miller

In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.

Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.

Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.

This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.

In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.

As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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