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Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. 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.

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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