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USA – Closing the digital divide

The digital divide is as much about infrastructure as it is cost. But despite global differences, the gap still needs closing.

In November 2021, US President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. As part of IIJA USD 65 billion was earmarked in funding for high-speed internet. It has been called a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity, and compared with the Rural Electrification Act, which brought power lines to rural America in the 1930s.

Of course, yet there is significant work to do. According to the latest numbers from the Federal Communications Commission, 12 percent of Americans lack access to home broadband, with throughput of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. According to Pew Research, 23 percent of Americans do not have an internet connection at home. Those are not just rural areas without broadband infrastructure, it is also urban areas where the connection is too expensive.

The components of the broadband portion of the Infrastructure bill are:

  • USD 42.5 billion for broadband deployment – New wires and wireless radios in places that do not have them, referred as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD).
  • USD 14.2 billion to make permanent a USD 30-per-month subsidy for low-income families to purchase a home internet subscription.
  • USD 2.75 billion to establish a grant program that will improve digital equity, which means teaching Americans how to make the most of the internet and their home connection.
  • USD 2 billion for new connectivity on tribal lands.
  • USD 1 billion to establish new middle-mile capacity, which will connect rural communities to the internet backbone.

Broadband Equity, Adoption, and Deployment (BEAD) Program
Among many other provisions, the law established the Broadband Equity, Adoption, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the federal government’s most ambitious investment in high-speed, affordable internet to date. BEAD dedicates more than USD 42 billion to construct broadband networks, subsidies to offset the cost of internet service for lower-income households, and programs to provide end users with the devices and training they need to use the new and upgraded networks. The BEAD program also marks the first time the federal government is providing grants to states specifically for these purposes.

Joe Biden

“High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer, it is a necessity.”

In addition, BEAD includes requirements – such as ongoing engagement with local stakeholders and marginalized communities, higher speed and reliability standards, and data collection to assess usage and impact of program funds – that are designed to correct some shortcomings of prior federal policy and establish consistency across states.

Kamala Harris
Vice President,

“Every person in our nation, no matter how much they earn, should be able to afford a high-speed internet plan.”

Coupled with this, the USD 14-billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and USD 2.75 billion for digital equity, the broadband programs of 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are poised to make significant headway in achieving nationwide digital equity.

Gina Raimondo
Secretary of Commerce,

“The Administration is committed to connecting tribal communities to affordable high-speed internet service.”

What are the funds for?
The Congress established the BEAD program to address the persistent digital divide in the United States, and outlined three associated priorities for use of the funds – building infrastructure, developing broadband action plans, and supporting programs to promote user adoption of new networks. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – the agency within the US Department of Commerce that administers the program – clarified in its June 2022 Notice of Funding Opportunity that BEAD spending should prioritize:

  • Fiber connectivity directly to the end user.
  • Unserved locations, those without access to 25-megabit-per-second (Mbps) download service and 3-Mbps uploads, commonly expressed as 25/3-Mbps service.
  • Proposals that improve affordability to ensure that networks built using taxpayer dollars are accessible to all Americans.

Although delivering affordable fiber connections to unserved areas takes precedence, states may thereafter also apply funds to connecting underserved areas, which are those without access to 100/20-Mbps service; providing 1-gigabit-per-second symmetrical – meaning for both upload and download – connections to community anchor institutions, such as libraries, schools, and hospitals; supporting digital skills training, workforce development, and provision of telehealth services; and promoting other broadband-related uses.

The NTIA is responsible for overseeing the distribution of funding to eligible entities, which are the 50 US states and all US territories, and it has established five minimum requirements for all BEAD-funded projects. They must:

  • Deliver internet service that is not subject to data caps and has reliable speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps and low enough latency – the time it takes for data to travel to its destination and back along the network and which consumers experience as a delay, such as choppiness and buffering – to support real-time applications, such as videoconferencing.
  • Build and operate networks with average combined outages that do not exceed 48 hours a year (with exceptions for natural disasters).
  • Provide broadband service to end users within four years of receipt of funds, carry out public awareness campaigns, and make connections available to any customer within the service area covered by the funding award.
  • Develop cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans to ensure that critical infrastructure is protected from threats, such as hacking.
  • Participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a USD 30-a-month discount to eligible households (USD 75 a month for households on tribal lands), and offer at least one low-cost broadband service option.

The Congress and the NTIA also outlined requirements for states and territories, including use of competitive award processes to select funded projects and submission of a series of documents addressing how eligible entities’ intended uses of BEAD funds would achieve the goals set forth in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Don Graves
Deputy Secretary of Commerce,

“High-speed internet service is going to create opportunities, increase productivity, and improve lives, particularly in communities that have too often been left behind.”

How is funding allocated? The Congress split BEAD funding into three formula-based allocations – minimum, high-cost, and remaining funds. The minimum allocation to states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico will be USD 100 million each; other US territories will receive minimum allocations of USD 25 million. The NTIA will allocate the remaining funds based on the ability of individual states and territories to provide broadband to unserved areas that meet the minimum project criteria outlined earlier.

Jessica Rosenworcel
Member and Chairwoman,
Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

“It’s time to address digital discrimination with new urgency. We seek to identify the policies and practices that can lead to digital discrimination, recognizing that this won’t be easy. We’re going to do it in a thoughtful way.”

High-cost allocations will target specific unserved areas – those where the cost of building broadband infrastructure is higher than the average cost of comparable construction in other unserved areas of the country. The NTIA will make these determinations based on factors, such as geographic remoteness, low population density, challenging topography, and high poverty. Eligible entities’ total high-cost allocations are likely to differ significantly, reflecting the wide variation in these factors across states and territories.

Marcus J. Molinaro
US representative for 19th Congressional District covering parts of the Hudson Valley,
Central New York, and Southern Tier

“There are federal funds available for rural broadband and we have to make sure our communities get their fair share.”

All funding allocations will be based on the FCC’s new broadband maps. An initial version of the maps, designed in accordance with the updated federal requirements, came out November 18, 2022.

NTIA ended 2022 by awarding USD 304 million in funding to every state, along with Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, for planning how to best deploy networks to connect everyone in America to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service.

States are set to receive a historic influx of funding to expand high-speed internet service, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The planning grants awarded in 2022 are down payments so the states can prepare to use the coming billions in broadband funding effectively. Each state has different needs and unique challenges in bridging the digital divide, and our planning grants recognize the importance of flexibility.

Some broadband leaders have proclaimed that states will entirely close, bridge, or eliminate the digital divide in the coming years. While understandable, such rhetoric is dangerous for two reasons.

First, it positions the digital divide as a binary to be solved – either you are connected, or you are not. Such thinking fails to capture the complexities of digital equity, which includes availability, affordability, adoption, literacy and skill development, and hardware. Each requires attention before we can lay claim to solving the digital divide, and USD 65 billion – the amount earmarked for broadband in the IIJA – is not enough to achieve such lofty goals.

Second, claiming we can end the digital divide masks the real cause of digital exclusion – inequality. Look at the communities most likely to be digitally excluded – low-income households, Black and Latinx communities, tribal communities, rural communities, older adults, those with disabilities, those with only a high school degree, and newcomers. These are the communities already facing systemic and endemic social, political, and economic marginalization. For instance, 38 percent of Southern rural Black families lack broadband, compared to only 22 percent of Southern rural white families, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. To actually end the digital divide, as scholar Jan van Dijk argues, we need to end inequality. A crucial goal in which digital inclusion certainly factors, but one that will take more than five years.

Remote connectivity. The BEAD program is substantive, but it is not enough to connect everybody to high-speed, affordable, future-proof networks. This is particularly true of the most geographically remote areas, where deployment costs escalate exponentially.

Operational expenses. The BEAD program covers capital expenses (CapEx) for the deployment of broadband networks (preferably fiber optics). It does not cover operational expenses (OpEx). This is particularly salient for rural, remote, and tribal providers, who serve communities that cannot provide the necessary financial returns to ensure viability. Broadband in these communities will always be a market failure. We can address this gap by resolving the long-standing debate over the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which offers OpEx funding for high-cost areas. We must also look beyond the private market and embrace community options, such as municipal and regional networks, and cooperatives.

The Affordable Connectivity Program
ACP is a USD 14-billion program managed by the FCC that provides USD 30 per month to low-income households for broadband (USD 75 per month on tribal lands). While the FCC is encouraging eligible households to register, the money will dry up sometime in 2024. As a result, families who are finally able to participate in the digital world may drop off the digital map. The states and the Congress must ensure low-income families remain connected post-ACP.

Mapping. The FCC recently released its long-awaited and seriously revised national broadband map, offering granular, address-level data. Within days of its release, however, experts and states critiqued the map for once again failing to capture the extent of un- and under-connectivity in rural, tribal, and urban areas alike. The FCC is encouraging parties to challenge the map where they see discrepancies. It is evident, however, that both national and state broadband maps will require constant updating, and this requires long-term planning.

Hardware. Technological innovation will always arrive first in wealthy, urban areas, thus leaving low-income, rural, and tribal populations wanting. To realize digital equity, the states need to ensure marginalized communities have access to more than just good enough technologies.

Literacy and skills. Digital literacy and skill development are cradle-to-grave issues, because digital needs change over time and technology. CNET, for instance, recently reported on how older adults in rural areas are particularly disenfranchised when it comes to digital education. When developing digital equity plans, state broadband leaders must think long term to ensure their constituents have the training and confidence needed to take advantage of their newfound connectivity.

The Digital Equity Act
The Act provides USD 2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion.

As part of the Digital Equity Act, US territories (American Samoa, Guam, CNMI, and USVI) are also eligible for USD 3M in set-aside funding to develop plans to ensure that all communities can access and use affordable, reliable, high-speed internet.

As of December 23, 2022, all 50 states have received their State Planning Grant funds. States now have a year from the time they received funding to create their digital equity plan. Without a complete digital equity plan, states will not be able to apply for implementation funding via the State Capacity Grant.

There are certain criticisms that are emerging on the program.

Funding. Critics argue that the allocated funds may not be enough to address the issue of digital equity.

Implementation. There are concerns about the feasibility and practicality of implementing the Act effectively, especially in rural and remote areas.

Lack of focus on marginalized communities. Some argue that the Act does not go far enough in addressing the specific needs of marginalized communities, such as low-income families and people of color.

Privacy and security. The Act has been criticized for potentially compromising privacy and security by requiring the collection and sharing of personal information.

Government involvement. Critics argue that the government should not play a role in expanding access to technology and that private companies should be responsible for addressing the digital divide.

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program
The program is continuing its historic and unprecedented commitment to close the digital divide by investing in native communities. The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program is a nearly USD 3-billion grant program and part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Internet for All Initiative. The funds are made available from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (USD 2 billion) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (USD 980 million).

On December 19, awarded two grants as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP). These new grants, totaling more than USD 36 million, bring the total of the program to over USD 1.73 billion awarded to 132 tribal entities.

Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program
Enabling the provides funding for this vital part of the nation’s high-speed network. With USD 1 billion in funding, the program will reduce the cost of bringing high-speed internet to unserved and underserved communities. The purpose of the grant program is to expand and extend middle-mile infrastructure, reducing the cost to serve unserved and underserved areas, and increasing the resilience of internet infrastructure.

Preliminary data by NTIA shows that over 235 applications were submitted, totaling more than USD 5.5 billion in funding requests, for Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program.

Connecting Minority Communities program is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Internet for All initiative that will connect everyone in America with affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service. This program specifically directs USD 268 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 for expanding high-speed internet access and connectivity to eligible historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges or universities (TCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

On January 30, 2023, 12 grants have been awarded as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program (CMC). Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Alan Davidson announced the awards at Coppin State University (MD), one of the Connecting Minority Communities Program’s awardees. They were joined by Governor Wes Moore, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Representative Kweisi Mfume, and Coppin State University President Anthony Jenkins.

The challenge for state broadband leaders is to think simultaneously short term – IIJA – and long term – post-IIJA. Long-term planning is necessary to achieve what Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, calls sustainable broadband. We cannot solve, end, or close the digital divide in the next five years and it is crucial that state broadband leaders stop making this claim. Until we eradicate inequality, we will not end digital exclusion. But states can get so much closer to digital equity if they think sustainably.

Broadband leaders need to stop claiming we can end digital divides in the next half-decade. State broadband leaders should approach digital exclusion as a chronic condition that requires dynamic, flexible, long-term responses and planning. With new federal funding available, now is the time to close the digital divide. It will take continued efforts on the part of private-sector companies, philanthropic organizations, community development groups, and all levels of government to ensure that this funding is deployed effectively.

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