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Digital Inclusion

State Broadband Offices Should Emphasize Adoption and Sustainability

Without efforts to drive adoption, federal investment in connectivity will fall short, agreed Brookings panelists.

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Screenshot of Brookings panelists

WASHINGTON, December 23, 2022 — As states begin to receive funds from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Act, they need to lay the groundwork for high adoption and fiscal sustainability, said panelists at a Brookings event on December 15.

The majority of the BEAD program’s $42.5 billion in funding has yet to be disbursed, and state allocations are expected by June 2023. But without efforts to drive adoption, the government’s investment in connectivity will fall short, panelists agreed.

“If we make these investments and people don’t see the value in how broadband can improve their lives, both professionally and personally, then frankly it’s a busted investment,” said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of ConnectLA. “And so from our perspective, we’re looking at how we can really help drive Louisiana’s economy… which also means driving adoption, digital skills and doing the kinds of things that we need to do to tackle the digital divide.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced in August that Louisiana was the first state to receive a planning grant through the Internet for All initiative, amounting to $2.9 million.

Affordability is a big problem for Louisiana broadband

Currently, one out of every three people in Louisiana lacks access to affordable, high-speed internet, and the problem affects both rural and urban areas, Iyengar said. The state’s goal is to get through the iterative planning process and start disseminating the funds by the end of 2023.

One of the biggest barriers to adoption is affordability.

“Overwhelmingly, we know that if you are low income in America, you are less likely to have access to a broadband connection… [It’s] not just about building out these connections — we really do need to be thinking about long term solutions to affordability,” said Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Forty-three percent of adults with an annual household income of under $30,000 have not adopted home broadband, and almost half of them cite cost as the primary barrier, according to Pew data.

Beyond affordability, other barriers to adoption include lack of digital literacy, costs associated with devices and concerns about privacy. These issues need to be addressed now rather than later, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“We have to make sure we have these holistic solutions all at the same time, which is really hard because there’s all this money going to buildout and we want people to also figure out affordability and digital skills and devices — so it’s a huge lift for the states,” Siefer said.

This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that states generally have a very low number of core broadband staff, Iyengar noted.

About half of the 50 state broadband offices were created since 2020, and so staffing and building capacity is an important and ongoing task, de Wit said.

Long-term affordability for consumers will have broad economic benefits

“Part of the reason that we are spending this much money on broadband now is because we have had such low policy goals for so long,” de Wit said. But as states set more ambitious goals, they also need to focus on fiscal sustainability, both in terms of physical network upkeep and long-term affordability.

The Affordable Connectivity Program has been projected to end within the next couple of years, Siefer said. Some of the networks may not be completed by then, meaning that many households might miss out on using the subsidy.

“We have to figure out a long-term sustainability plan for the Affordable Connectivity Program,” she said.

Treating digital equity and access to technology as a priority rather than a “nice-to-have” would have benefits reaching far beyond individual consumers, de Wit said.

“If we want to stay competitive as an American economy… we need to stop treating these things like an ‘other’ and we need to be thinking about technological integration and digital transformation in everything that we do.”

Iyengar pointed to the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many traditional business models, driving innovation in industries from healthcare to grocery delivery. Leveraging broadband as an asset could yield similar innovation as a result of new consumer behavior, he said.

Siefer agreed, pointing out the wide range of industries beyond internet service providers that benefit from developments such as the rise of telehealth.

“Lots of folks benefit when lots of folks are online,” she said.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

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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