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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.

Digital Inclusion

White House Presses Outreach Initiatives for Affordable Connectivity Program

White House officials urged schools and other local institutions to engage in text-message and social media campaigns for the ACP.

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Photo of President Joe Biden, obtained from Wikimedia.

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2022 – The White House on Monday urged schools and other local institutions to engage in text-message and social media campaigns, PSAs, and other community-outreach initiatives to promote enrollment in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program among of families with school-age children.

The Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes internet service bill for low-income households. Monthly discounts of up to $30 are available for non-tribal enrollees, $75 for applicants on qualifying tribal lands. In addition, the ACP offers enrollees a one-time discount $100 on qualifying device purchases.

To boost ACP enrollment, speakers encouraged schools to reach out directly to families. Bharat Ramanurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council, said text-message campaigns drive up enrollment in government programs. A Massachusetts text-message campaign doubled ACP enrollment rates in subsequent days, said Ramanurti.

Also highlighted was the administration’s “ACP Consumer Outreach Kit,” which provides partners with resources, including fliers, posters, audio PSAs, social-media templates.

In fact, many of these tactics have proved effective in increasing ACP enrollment among telehealth patients. In addition, Microsoft and Communications Workers of America recently announced a circuit of ACP sign-up drives in that will tour several states including Michigan, New York, and North Carolina.

Political considerations as November nears…

As students go back to school and midterm elections loom, new ACP sign-ups could benefit the enrollees as well as the Democrats’ political chances.

Public officials and private experts alike recognize the value of community involvement in extending broadband connectivity and digital literacy nationwide. Marshaling community institutions – like schools – to maximize broadband access could help Biden and other Democrats overcome inflation-driven electoral headwinds in the November midterms. The White House obtained commitments from 20 providers to offer high-speed internet plans for $30 per month or less to ACP-eligible households – this means no out-of-pocket costs for recipients of ACP discounts. Free broadband coverage could bring the administration – and all Democrat candidates, by extension – back into the good graces of low-income families.

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Digital Inclusion

Federal Government Must Collect More Granular Data on Minorities to Aid in Initiatives

Discussion on the “data gap” comes as the nation tries to connect the unserved and underserved.

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Screenshot of Denice Ross, the White House's chief data scientist

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2022 – In order to serve the needs of all Americans, the federal government must gather and act on more granular data on underrepresented minority groups that have been historically overlooked in the data-gathering process, said Denice Ross, the White House’s chief data scientist.

Ross argued at an online event hosted by the Center for Data Innovation on Tuesday that many minority groups – including African Americans, Native Americans, the disabled, and the LGBT community – are disadvantaged by the “data divide,” a term which refers to disparities in the amount and quality of available data on various groups.

Ross was citing a report issued earlier this year by the Equitable Data Working Group, a task force created by President Joe Biden earlier this year, which said policymakers are often unable to perceive or ameliorate problems facing minority communities if data on those communities are unavailable or insufficiently disaggregated. Disaggregated data, the report says, is “data that can be broken down and analyzed by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, age, or other key demographic variables.”

The report recommends a federal data collection strategy that safeguards privacy and facilitates analysis of “the interconnectedness of identities and experiences,” or how individuals’ various minority-group identities compound the societal disadvantages they face. The report also advocates the creation of “incentives and pathways” promoting minority representation in the data collection process.

The recommendations come as the broadband industry and federal agencies try to improve knowledge of where there are unserved and underserved areas for broadband connectivity and to take action to improve digital literacy. The Illinois Broadband Lab and other state broadband offices, for example, implement a community-up approach to data gathering. Direct community involvement provides data insights that help states deliver coverage to in-need communities, officials say. 

In the panel discussion that followed Ross’s opening remarks, experts and academics agreed that community outreach is a necessary step in closing the data divide. Dominique Harrison, director of bank Citi Ventures’ Racial Equity Design and Data Initiative, said that some in the African American community view data collection with skepticism.  

Christopher Wood, executive director of LGBT Tech, argued that the passage of a federal privacy standard is a critical step toward establishing trust in government data collection. The most recent attempt to pass a national privacy regime, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, was approved by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month.

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Digital Inclusion

Libraries in Position to Help Promote Federal Programs, Improve Digital Literacy: Library Rep

Libraries can act as gateways to ensure community members know about their broadband subsidy options.

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Screenshot of Larra Clark, deputy director of the Public Library Association, via CSPAN

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2022 – Libraries’ close connection with community members allow them to act as gateways for digital literacy, according to the deputy director of the Public Library Association.

Initiatives such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program and Emergency Connectivity Fund lower the cost of obtaining broadband coverage and devices, but at least the former has been plagued by a marketing problem.

As the FCC builds its outreach program for to more effectively market the ACP, Larra Clark, deputy director of the PLA and of the Public Policy & Advocacy Office of the American Library Association, said libraries can help promote those programs and help address digital literacy problems as well.  

Speaking Monday at a GovExec and Comcast web event, Clark argued that the efforts of government officials, experts, and industry players to provide broadband coverage and the hardware necessary to access it must be accompanied by community-level educational programs.

Many unserved or underserved individuals, however, are unaware of how to get access to broadband, Clark said. And even if unserved and underserved individuals are aware of the programs through which they can obtain broadband, they often lack the digital literacy to navigate application processes.

Clark said she believes that a necessary component of digital literacy outreach is understanding the perspectives on and biases against new technologies in many hard-to-reach communities. “I really believe these human dimensions should be at the forefront of our conversations,” Clark said.

Expanding digital literacy among difficult-to-reach populations is a recognized challenge for many broadband industry experts and politicians.

A Texas library system facilitated pandemic relief

At the same event, David Cross, Comcast’s vice president of enterprise sales, offered an example of how libraries can extend broadband assistance to their communities.

During the pandemic, one Texas library system offered parking lot drive-through stations that helped people sign up for government assistance on energy costs. By providing iPads, WiFi access, and staff assistance, Cross said, this program ensured that all in-need community members – including the unserved and the technologically illiterate – were able to access relief and restore power to their homes.

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