Digital Equity Planning Process Should Include Local Communities, Says NTIA Official

Engaging local communities can build trust, which is an important factor in increasing adoption.

Digital Equity Planning Process Should Include Local Communities, Says NTIA Official

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2023 — Government entities and local community organizations must work together to maximize the long-term impact of federal digital equity funding, and should include underserved communities in the planning process to pave the way for universal adoption, according to experts at a Broadband Breakfast event on Wednesday.

“We have to we have to hear from all voices — not just the higher-level government organizations, but the organizations that are serving our covered population, the people in the field doing this work and those lived experts who are actually experiencing some of those barriers,” said Susan Corbett, executive director of the National Digital Equity Center.

Amy Huffman, Policy Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance

The three programs created by the Digital Equity Act build on top of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program to ensure that communities have the necessary resources and skills to fully utilize the internet.

“Aligning and integrating [digital equity initiatives] with the BEAD program is essential,” said Angela Thi Bennett, digital equity director for the NTIA. “States should be doing this work in tandem, making sure that the BEAD plans and digital equity plans aren’t siloed… so that everyone is working towards that same goal of universal access.”

States, territories and tribal governments are currently utilizing funds from the $60 million State Planning Program to develop digital equity plans. The implementation of these plans will be supported by the $1.44 billion State Capacity Program, which is set to launch in 2024.

The $1.25 billion Competitive Program will be open to a wider range of entities — including local municipalities, nonprofit organizations and community anchor institutions — and is expected to begin accepting applications within a month of the first Capacity awards.

This program can help ensure that any potential gaps in state plans are filled by the “incredible grassroots work that happens from people local closest to the communities,” said David Keyes, digital equity advisor for the City of Seattle.

Community involvement is key to sustainable, effective planning

For each of the Digital Equity Act programs, engagement with local communities is important for ensuring long-term sustainability, Bennett said. “We need to make sure that we’re building the capacity of the organizations that are serving these communities so this work can continue.”

“There’s a lot of requirements and not a lot of time, but we really want to make sure that we support states to reach that end goal of creating digital equity ecosystems across the country that are sustainable,” agreed Amy Huffman, policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

To achieve this goal, Huffman advocated for prioritizing community engagement “first and foremost,” from the initial planning stages through implementation.

“It should not only be a checking a box, but it needs to be meaningful and continuous,” she said. “States and territories and the tribal organizations should be co-creating these plans with communities.”

In addition to supporting the sustainability of state plans, this local engagement will improve the plans themselves by ensuring that they “reflect the actual needs and the realities that are on the ground of the individual communities,” Huffman added.

Panelists call for ACP extension, emphasizing importance to other initiatives

One of the major focuses of digital equity planning — particularly for local stakeholders — is increasing adoption rates.

“We know that broadband passes probably about 95 percent of households, yet only 77 percent of people subscribe,” said Deborah Lathen, president of Lathen Consulting LLC. “The focus has got to be on affordability, because we know it’s basically lower income people who do not subscribe to broadband.”

While the Affordable Connectivity Program was designed to address this very issue, many experts have predicted that it will run out of funding by mid-2024.

“The extension of ACP is urgent,” Lathen said “One of the worst things you can do is sign people up and then drop the program, because I think another major factor impacting adoption is trust.”

The collapse of the ACP could also impact the efficacy of other federal connectivity initiatives, Huffman warned.

“The Digital Equity Act is $2.75 billion — it’s a lot of money — but that’s not enough to cover affordability, devices, skills, everything for the foreseeable future,” she said. “It needs the Affordable Connectivity Program to be alongside it in order for it to be as effective as it can possibly be.”

Despite its importance, the ACP alone is not enough to ensure universal connectivity, Bennett said. “There are still segments of our population that don’t qualify for ACP, but can’t afford the internet,” Bennett said. “If we are truly wanting to accomplish internet for all, we also need to make sure that [those segments] are also able to receive access.”

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023, 12 Noon ET – State Digital Equity Plans

The Digital Equity Act, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, provides $2.75 billion for three grant programs aiming to promote digital equity. The $60 million State Planning Program, $1.44 billion State Capacity Program and $1.25 Competitive Program will fund a variety of digital equity projects across the country, from planning to implementation. In this session of Broadband Breakfast Live Online, state broadband leaders will talk about how their states are approaching the digital equity planning process and what they hope to accomplish with the federal funding.


  • Angela Thi Bennett, Digital Equity Director, NTIA
  • Susan Corbett, Executive Director, National Digital Equity Center
  • Amy Huffman, Policy Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance
  • David Keyes, Digital Equity Advisor, City of Seattle
  • Deborah Lathen, President, Lathen Consulting LLC
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources

Angela Thi Bennett serves as the first-ever digital equity director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce, where she directs the allocation of $2.75 billion from the Digital Equity Act and helps develop guidelines for states to equitably use these funds. Her vast community and public sector experience include leading East Cleveland’s department of community and economic development, serving as superintendent of a community school in Cleveland and serving on the Ohio State Board of Education. In her previous work at a community-based internet service provider, she was instrumental in growing the customer base and helping over 1,500 individuals benefit from affordable digital access during the height of the pandemic.

Susan Corbett founded the National Digital Equity Center in 2017, collaborating with local and global change makers, relentlessly driving disruptive strategies to close the digital divide in Maine and across the United States. She serves as the Executive Director, and is a preeminent authority and advocate for digital equity and digital inclusion. She is currently collaborating with the State of Maine to create their statewide Digital Equity and Digital Inclusion Plan.

Amy Huffman serves as policy director at National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). She is a public servant, systems thinker, innovative policy expert, and a storyteller with a passion for digital equity that spans more than 10 years. Amy was the first digital inclusion and policy manager in the State of North Carolina, and she has since grown as a leader with a national portfolio, including advocating for, influencing, and educating stakeholders about the $2.75-billion Digital Equity Act.

David Keyes works at the intersection of information and communications technologies, race and social justice, and community capacity building. He has over 25 years experience guiding the City of Seattle’s digital equity strategic planning, advocacy, programs and evaluation. He was the first community technology planner in the country and developed the City’s Technology Access and Adoption Indicators research. In 2016, he received the inaugural Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the Benton Foundation.

Deborah Lathen is an attorney and policymaker who has been working on digital equity issues for over three decades. She was appointed to a Senior Executive position in the Clinton Administration as Chief of the Cable Services Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, where she led a bureau of 112 lawyers, economists, accountants, engineers and economists in setting policies and crafting regulations covering cable, satellite TV, internet and equipment providers. In 2001, she founded Lathen Consulting, LLC where she advises clients on telecommunications regulatory and policy matters.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC. He has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Graphic from Adobe Stock used with permission

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