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Apr 6, 2023

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

Maine has opted to combine our digital equity and infrastructure planning, so digital equity will be woven throughout the plan being developed by MCA and will also result in a separate stand alone digital equity plan for the state for the first time. The digital equity components of the Broadband Action Plan will be guided by the Digital Equity Taskforce and supported by the Regional and Tribal Broadband Partners.

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.

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.”

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