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Digital Inclusion

Removing Roadblocks on Bridge Over Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., in March 2011, from the office House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office

While the bulk of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All (AAIA) Act proposes to invest $100 billion to expand broadband access in unserved and underserved parts of the country, the legislation also looks to build an essential bridge across the digital divide that goes beyond new infrastructure.

An important part of the equation involves addressing laws and policies that have proven to be obstacles to Internet connectivity for tens of millions of Americans.

In our previous installments examining the AAIA, we covered the big-ticket items – the why, how and where the $100+ billion would be invested. This final installment in the series covers the last three major sections of the bill: Title IV – Community Broadband; Title V – Broadband Infrastructure Deployment; and Title VI – Repeal of Rule and Prohibition on Use of NPRM.

These last three sections of the AAIA do not call for any federal appropriations but instead aim to tackle several thorny policy challenges.

Removing State Barriers to Municipal Broadband Initiatives

Title IV – Community Broadband (Section 4001) of the bill is straight-forward. It would prohibit state governments from enforcing laws or regulations that prevent local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives from delivering broadband service.

As it stands now, there are 19 states across the country where state legislators have passed laws designed to shield the biggest corporate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from competition. Those laws were mostly written by lobbyists for these behemoth monopolies and duopolies, despite the fact that the Big Telcos have failed to deliver reliable, affordable and truly high-speed Internet access to large segments of the population.

In Colorado, for example, legislators in that state passed SB-152, a law that prevents local governments from investing in broadband infrastructure. Fortunately for Coloradoans, the law was amended to allow municipalities to opt-out through local referendum votes, which over 140 Colorado communities have done in the 15 years since Qwest (now CenturyLink) and Comcast successfully lobbied for passage of the anti-competition bill.

In North Carolina, home to the celebrated Greenlight Municipal Broadband Network, a 2011 state law (HB-129) effectively outlaws municipal networks in the Volunteer State by saddling local governments with a thicket of red tape, including territorial restrictions on existing networks. The building of the Greenlight Network, thankfully, predated the state law, although it continues to impede other municipalities in the state from building their own networks.

As we have written about on numerous occasions, we are strongly in favor of locally-controlled networks and the distinct advantages they provide in terms of affordability and superior customer service, as well as the benefit of keeping local funds in the community instead of dollars being siphoned away to the fill the coffers of out-of-state corporations who extract premium prices as a monopoly provider.

While we support this section of the AAIA, we also recognize the likelihood that some state governors will resent the federal government preempting them just as much as local officials are angry when states restrict local authority.

National “Dig Once” Policy 

The next section of the AAIA, Title V – Broadband Infrastructure Deployment (Section 5001), however, provides something the National Governors Association favors: a “dig once” provision to better coordinate transportation and broadband infrastructure projects, while giving states flexibility and preventing any unfunded mandates.

This section of the bill would create a “Dig Once Funding Task Force” to estimate the cost of a nationwide “dig once” requirement. The Task Force, in consultation with stakeholders in rural communities and communities with limited access to broadband, would then propose funding options to implement a “dig once” requirement.

“Dig once,” which effectively eliminates the need to dig up recently-paved roads by requiring broadband conduit to be laid during road construction projects, is an easily overlooked but important consideration. It’s important because up to 90 percent of costs associated with underground deployment are often due to the excavation rather than materials, which is why forward-thinking “dig once” policies save tax dollars, to say nothing of the relief it provides commuters too often stuck in road construction traffic.

The challenge is one of administration. It is not clear who would be responsible for maintaining and leasing out the access as these highways cross many jurisdictions. ILSR and others have encouraged the federal government to focus on bottlenecks like overpasses, bridges, tunnels, railroad crossings, and the like rather than all highways. This would provide most of the benefits at a fraction of the costs and administrative burdens.

Saving a Tribal Lifeline

The final section of the AAIA, Title VI – Repeal of Rule and Prohibition on Use of NPRM (Section 6001), seeks to repeal the widely-criticized rule the FCC adopted in November 2017 that sought to “reform” Tribal Lifeline policies “to increase the availability and affordability of high-quality communications services on Tribal lands.”

While the rule was adopted under the guise of curbing abuses of Lifeline funds, outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with the support of GOP FCC commissioners, moved to eliminate Lifeline benefits in tribal areas. The program was designed for low-income households on tribal lands to receive a monthly subsidy – the $9.25 Lifeline discount plus an additional $25 – to help qualifying tribal households pay for broadband services.

Several companies had committed fraud in Indian Country to maximize their gains under the program and rather than sorting that out, Chairman Pai aimed to simply shut down needed benefits in tribal areas. In February 2019, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the move.

After the court-ruling, which allowed the Tribal Lifeline program to continue or require the FCC to re-do the rulemaking process in accordance with the court’s order, Indian Country leaders hailed the decision.

Gene DeJordy, an attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, lauded the legal victory and said it meant “that First Americans who live in some of the most impoverished areas of the country can continue receiving essential Lifeline services that they depend on in emergencies, and for work, family care, education, and other vital day-to-day needs.”

Section 6001 looks to settle the matter once and for all by preventing the FCC from adopting a rule to cap Universal Service Funds from which the Lifeline program draws its funding, codifying the view of broadband advocates and Democratic lawmakers who rightfully criticized the rule. This change will likely lead to renewed calls to deal with “contribution reform” – how the Universal Service Fund is filled.

Final Thoughts

In our view, the AAIA represents an important step forward and should be the building block for broadband legislation in the 117th Congress. We believe Congress should provide more focused support for urban needs, which have been overlooked historically, as a considerable amount of effort has been focused on rural areas that are less politically controversial.

As with so many other policy areas that involve the allocation of federal resources, the evidence indicates systemic racial imbalances even as every demographic group in the U.S. has challenges accessing high-quality Internet. White Americans have enjoyed disproportionate government support to address these barriers to access and we believe it is a simple matter of equity to craft policies and legislation that ensures no segment of the population is left behind.

This concludes our series on the AAIA. The previous parts of our series below:

Major Change on the Horizon? Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 1

Building a Bridge over the Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 2

“You Can’t Use an Old Map To Explore a New World”: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 3

Big Bucks for Broadband in the Balance: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 4

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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