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Digital Inclusion

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Says FCC Eyes Emergency Broadband Benefit Program as a Priority Item

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Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks at a prior event

February 16, 2021 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is currently a top priority for the regulatory agency.

The FCC has 60 days to determine how best to allocate the money from the program intended to reach “more disconnected low-income people and households of color than any previous FCC effort to close the digital divide,” he said at the Incompas summit on Feb. 9, alluding to its urgency.

Starks said he wants to take a different direction than what he called the poor handling by the previous FCC of the Lifeline program, which saw only 20 per cent of eligible low-income households subscribe to the program.

One way to do that where the previous FCC failed is outreach – to get the word out, he said.

Starks did thank the major internet providers who participated in the Keep America Connected pledge, which spared households from being cut off from internet service for 60 days if they couldn’t pay their bills and waived late fees during the pandemic.

Starks encouraged people to reach out to their internet providers and their constituents to increase participation in the emergency program. In Detroit, Michigan, nearly half the population lacks broadband access and 29,000 of those who do are students, which is a startling figure that demonstrates the urgent need for connectivity, he said.

Bearing the cost of developing and expanding broadband networks is a challenge to overcome. Starks compared the Lifeline program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and said if someone qualifies for SNAP, “then they should also learn about Lifeline.”

Accessing programs like these need to be as easy and possible. The FCC’s controlling statute is clear: Quality services should be available at just, reasonable, and affordable rates, he said.

Flexibility and changes also need to be added to the E-Rate program, which provides discount internet service to schools and libraries. Starks expressed anger over educational challenges caused by the pandemic.

Speaking of the FCC, he said, “our ability to respond to the educational challenges posed by COVID-19 has been hamstrung by the previous administration’s crabbed interpretation of the E-Rate statute.” Students will still continue with virtual school, and the program needs to better adapt for those that do.

Securing bipartisan support in Congress plays a major role in the success of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. Starks said he wants to study the relationship between affordability and lack of broadband adoption to improve federal subsidies for households needing broadband.

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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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