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Digital Equity Program Aims to Bring Broadband to Underserved Communities

By Mark Wolf  |  November 21, 2022

Broadband internet isn’t just for “The Crown,” “Stranger Things” and free two-day shipping.

The pandemic told us so.

“The pandemic was the national teaching moment. It showed how essential a high-speed internet connection is to enable work, education, health, connect with friends and families,” Joseph Wender, director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Capital Projects Fund, said during the session “The Latest Buzz on Broadband” at NCSL’s Base Camp.

"It is going to take a whole society to make sure everybody has broadband." —Susannah Spellman, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Wender, along with Susannah Spellman of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, explained how $65 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is earmarked for distribution to states to facilitate universal availability of high-speed broadband.

Spellman stressed state legislatures can play a crucial role in the process.

“You’re going to get those unprecedented once-in-a-lifetime funds,” he says. Legislatures can help create an environment so the money can go a little further. For example, things like permitting and rights of way and dig-once policies: A lot of money is going out for roads, sewers, pipes. If you can maximize that one action of construction that’s great.”

The money will be channeled through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program as well as three programs under the Digital Equity Act.

BEAD will distribute $4.2 billion across states to develop strategies and implement plans to ensure everyone has access to affordable, high-speed broadband, Spellman says. States can spend up to $5 million for staff, consultants, mapping and other items for a long-term broadband strategy. She says allocations are expected to come in 2023.

The digital equity program aims to promote access, especially for underserved communities. It targets nine populations—minorities, those who speak English as a second language, lower-income residents, the elderly—that historically are not broadband users or have had barriers to use, Spellman says. The NTIA announced this week it has awarded 18 grants totaling nearly $225 million to 18 tribal entities as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.

“These programs have a very wide spectrum of stakeholders,” Spellman says. “States are being encouraged and required to dig deeply and engage telecom providers, community organizations, tribal governments, schools, universities and local government. It is going to take a whole society to make sure everybody has broadband.”

New broadband maps released Nov. 18 will be used to make decisions about where service is needed.

“What’s really critical about these maps is they locate all the places served and unserved, down to the actual fishing hut in a little mountain in Alaska to an apartment building in New York,” Spellman says. They are going to be the primary input to help drive the formula for BEAD.

Different States, Different Needs

The key thing to keep in mind, Wender says, is the variation among states, which will be able to use their own data to challenge the maps’ accuracy.

“We’re seeing states tailoring their programs to address different needs. Sometimes they are entirely new builds, some places are piecing together small parts of census tracts, some need ‘middle miles,’” he says, referring to the infrastructure that connects local internet providers to the internet backbones running nationwide.

“Massachusetts, Michigan and Montana have different topography, different demographics, different needs. (BEAD) allows each of those states to choose its own program as long as it fits our overall guidelines to address the inequities and problems that exist in their states. Some places require internet service providers to have larger or smaller roles.“

Responding to a question about best practices states can employ in applying for the grants, Wender says they should pay attention to the buildout standards.

“We want to make sure we have the most forward-looking investment not for the short run but for the long run,” he says. “Second is to require ISPs to participate in the affordability program administered by FCC. It’s so important to be able to see that these buildouts are going benefit low-income families in these unserved areas. The best states have plans on how they’re going to attack this.”

He says there is wide bipartisan agreement that broadband connectivity is a problem in every state. “This is not a partisan issue—it’s an American issue.”

Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.

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