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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

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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