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Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. 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.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband is Affordable for Middle Class, NCTA Claims

According to analysis, the middle class spends on average $69 per month on internet service.

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Photo of Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at NCTA

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Even as policymakers push initiatives to make broadband less expensive, primarily for low-income Americans, broadband is already generally affordable for the middle class, argued Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at industry group NCTA, the internet and television association. 

Availability of broadband is not enough, many politicians and experts argue, if other barriers – e.g., price – prevent widespread adoption. Much focus has been directed toward boosting adoption among low-income Americans through subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program, but legally, middle-class adoption must also be considered. In its notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration required each state to submit a “middle-class affordability plan.”

During a webinar held earlier this month, Cimerman, who works for an organization that represents cable operators, defined the middle class as those who earn $45,300–$76,200, basing these boundaries on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2020. And based on the text of an Federal Communications Commission action from 2016, he set the threshold of affordability for broadband service at two percent of monthly household income.

According to his analysis, the middle class, thus defined, spends on average $69 per month on internet service. $69 is about 1.8 percent of monthly income for those at the bottom of Cimerman’s middle class and about 1.1 percent of monthly income for those at the top. Both figures fall within the 2-percent standard, and Cimerman stated that lower earners tended to spend slightly less on internet than the $69-per-month average.

Citing US Telecom’s analysis of the FCC’s Urban Rate Survey, Cimerman presented data that show internet prices dropped substantially from 2015 to 2021 – decreasing about 23 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent for “entry-level,” “most popular” and “highest-speed” residential plans, respectively. And despite recent price hikes on products such as gas, food, and vehicles, Cimerman said, broadband prices had shrunk 0.1 percent year-over-year as of September 2022.

Widespread adoption is important from a financial as well as an equity perspective, experts say. Speaking at the AnchorNets 2022 conference, Matt Kalmus, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, argued that providers rely on high subscription rates to generate badly needed network revenues.

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Digital Inclusion

FCC Advisory Committee Approves Strategies to Advance Digital Equity

In 2021, the FCC charged the council in its mission to prevent digital discrimination.

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Photo of Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion at Connected Nation and chair of the CEDC.

WASHINGTON, November 8, 2022 – The Federal Communication Commission’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council on Monday unanimously recommended strategies to minimize digital discrimination and advance digital equity, advocating stakeholder collaboration, the promotion of affordable broadband service, workforce diversity initiatives, state and local incentivization of partnerships with small minority and women-owned businesses, and more.

The new report’s three main sections lay out best practices to prevent discrimination by internet service providers, to ensure the equitable dispersal of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and to advance universal access for marginalized populations, respectively.

The IIJA allocated $65 billion to broadband funding. $42.45 billion from that pot went to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which will issue grants to the states based on relative needs. States will subsequently run their own sub-grant processes.

In 2021, the FCC charged the CEDC with assisting the agency in its mission to prevent discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability.

“This was a complex and critically important task for the CEDC, and I thank the members of the three working groups who worked so diligently to provide this expert guidance,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Earlier this year the Commission adopted a notice of inquiry on preventing and eliminating digital discrimination, and I look forward to incorporating these findings into that effort.”

“I applaud the chairwoman for trusting the council to contribute to the commission’s efforts to gather information from diverse stakeholders across the country,” said Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion at Connected Nation and chair of the Communications Equity and Diversity Council.

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Digital Inclusion

Not All Affordable Connectivity Enrollees Are Using the Benefit: A Look into 30 Major Metro Areas

‘The percentage of households in major metro areas…using the program is smaller than the percentage of households enrolled.’

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Photo from USAC's affordableconnectivity.gov web site

Since the launch of the Affordable Connectivity Program last January, millions of households have benefitted from the $30 per month connection subsidy to help pay for their broadband bills. The program serves as a necessary bridge in a failed marketplace, dominated nationally by a small number of regional monopolies driven by shareholders to charge the highest price possible.

Along the way, ILSR and a host of other research and advocacy organizations have been digging into the American Connectivity Program data in order to better understand how the program has operated over the last year, and how we can work collectively to improve education and outreach efforts and make sure as many households as possible will benefit. From this work we created an ACP Dashboard to collect and visualize useful data to support the critical work of digital navigators, nonprofits, and local governments.

Explore the Affordable Connectivity Program here, and read more about why we created it.

Recognizing the Gap

In addition to tracking how much of the $15.5 billion fund ($1.3 billion was carried over from the Emergency Broadband Benefit and $14.2 billion was allocated for the ACP] is left and predicting when it’ll run out (April 2026 at current rates), keeping an eye on state- and zip-code level use and enrollment, and following what types of connections households are using the benefit to pay for, an important part of this work has been tracking data across major metropolitan areas across the country.

As we continue to analyze the data and refine our tools to support work at the local level, we have found that the percentage of households in major metro areas (and likely elsewhere) that are actually using the program is smaller than the percentage of households enrolled in the program.

While a community’s ACP enrollment rate has been understood as an indicator both of its overall need for financial support and the effectiveness of local outreach efforts to sign up eligible households to participate in the ACP, the rate of claimed subscribers reflects the real effect of the program on that community. Here, we take a look at what the gap between enrollment and subscription looks like across 30 major metropolitan areas.

Currently, the major metro areas with the highest ACP enrollment rates are Detroit (58 percent of eligible households enrolled), Cleveland (58 percent), Columbus (55 percent), Baltimore (53 percent), and Los Angeles (52 percent). Only Cleveland, Columbus, and Los Angeles, however, also appear among the top five areas for greatest percentage of eligible households using the benefit (Cleveland: 46 percent claimed subscribers, Columbus: 45 percent, Los Angeles: 41 percent).

When we dive further into the metro area data, we can get some sense of why some cities are succeeding in not only enrolling households, but making sure they are using the benefit. For instance, San Antonio is on the list of top-five metro areas for use, despite being ranked 11th for enrollment.

At present, only 16 percent of enrolled San Antonio residents are not using the benefit. Why? The city has dedicated resources to staffing field organizers, who go door to door in low-income zip codes and talk to residents about the program, offering information both in English and in Spanish. Similar efforts are underway in Los Angeles, where there is only a 12 point difference between enrolled households and those using the benefit. Los Angeles also has a coalition of groups doing their own funded and unfunded community outreach to raise awareness of the program.

On the other hand, the following areas have relatively high enrollment rates but show large discrepancies when looking at the number of claimed subscribers:

Washington, DC: 49 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 17 percent are using the benefit.

Atlanta: 49 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 17 percent are using the benefit.

Detroit: 51 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 19 percent are using the benefit.

Baltimore: 53 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 24 percent are using the benefit.

Philadelphia: 48 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 20 percent are using the benefit.

Cleveland and Detroit both have an enrollment rate of 58, but Cleveland has a significantly higher percentage of households using the benefit, likely the result of years of dedicated efforts by DigitalC and the Cleveland Foundation to close the digital divide. Portland has the greatest relative discrepancy between enrollees and households using the benefit, with more than two thirds of its enrolled households not using the credit.

Reflecting the Gap in Our Tools

To reflect the significance of these gaps, while an earlier version of our ACP Dashboard focused on enrollment rates, we’ve adjusted our methodology to use the Total Claimed Subscriber number to calculate current ACP usage rates and predict future funding levels. We believe using Total Claimed Subscribers reflects a more faithful representation of usage rates and the rate of funds being depleted. A future iteration of the dashboard may further investigate the discrepancy between percentage enrolled and percentage claimed.

Explaining (and overcoming) this gap between enrollment is important, but we need more data to do so. It’s possible that some ISPs are deciding after some period of time that it’s not worth the resources to administer it and participate. It could also result from families getting enrolled by their ISP but not understanding that the benefit is available to them, or not having the digital literacy skills to use it.

The gap could also result from the way that the FCC verifies households’ eligibility, and regularly de-enrolls households it (sometimes erroneously) decides no longer qualify. We need more granular data from the Universal Services Administrative Company and the Federal Communications Commission to better understand why this gap between enrolled and claimed users continues to grow.

The policy implications and our analysis of the efficacy and future of this program stand: if anything, these numbers reflect less success in education and outreach efforts nationwide.

Check out the ACP Dashboard for more information. Special thanks to Drew Garner for his insight and feedback on the USAC data.

Authored by Emma Gautier, this article originally appeared on the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Municipal Broadband project on October 26, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

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