Saturday, November 6, 2021
The Largest U.S. Investment in Broadband Adoption Ever
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will not just build broadband networks, it aims to ensure that every American can use reliable high-speed internet service. We began this multi-part series on the major broadband-related provisions of the legislation with a look at broadband deployment grants. Now we turn to the provisions in the law that deal with broadband adoption: the Digital Equity Act of 2021. The new law allocates $2.75 billion to the states for digital inclusion planning and the implementation of those plans.
The Digital Equity Act was first proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in 2019 to create new federal investments targeted toward a diverse array of projects at the state and local levels that promote “digital equity.” Sen. Murray reintroduced the bill in June 2021 with Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Angus King (I-ME).
Three key definitions Congress employs in the new law:
1. Digital Equity: the condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.
2. Digital Inclusion: the activities that are necessary to ensure that all individuals in the United States have access to, and the use of, affordable information and communication technologies, such as
- reliable fixed and wireless broadband internet service;
- internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; and
- applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. This includes:
- obtaining access to digital literacy training;
- the provision of quality technical support; and
- obtaining basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity.
3. Covered Populations: individuals who live in covered households (that is, a household with income that is not more than 150 percent of an amount equal to the poverty level), aging individuals, incarcerated individuals(1), veterans, individuals with disabilities, individuals with a language barrier (think: those who are learning English or who have low levels of literacy), individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group, and individuals who primarily reside in a rural area.
I. State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act creates the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program. The purpose of the program is to promote digital equity, support digital inclusion activities, and build capacity for efforts by states relating to the adoption of broadband. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will make grants to states to ensure states have the capacity to achieve digital equity and support digital inclusion.
Congress has allocated $1.5 billion for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program:
1. Grants to Develop State Digital Equity Plans ($60 million available in FY2022)
Beginning in the first fiscal year that begins after the date of enactment (FY2022 began Oct 1, 2021), NTIA will award planning grants to states for the purpose of developing State Digital Equity Plans.
To be eligible for a grant, a state must submit an application to the NTIA not later than 60 days after NTIA has published a notice of funding availability. The application must include a description of the state’s digital equity entity (see next paragraph) and a commitment to develop the state digital equity plan in no more than one year after being awarded the grant.
Each state’s governor selects an administering entity to serve as the recipient and administrator of the grant as well as be responsible to develop, implement, and oversee the State Digital Equity Plan. (The entity may make subgrants in support of the plan or digital inclusion activities.) The entity is to serve as an advocate for digital equity policy and digital inclusion activities and become a repository of best practice materials.
The following may serve as the digital equity entity: the state, a political subdivision, an agency, an instrumentality of the state, an Indian Tribe; a foundation, corporation, institution, association, or coalition if they are a not-for-profit providing services in the state—but not a school; a community anchor institution (a public or multi-family housing authority, a library, a medical or healthcare provider, a community college or other institution of higher education, a state library agency, and any other nonprofit or governmental community support organization) located in the state; a local educational agency (think public board of education); an entity located in the state that carries out a workforce development program; an agency responsible for administering adult education and literacy activities; a public housing authority; or a partnership of eligible entities.
A State Digital Equity Plan is to include:
- identification of the barriers to digital equity faced by covered populations in the state;
- measurable objectives for documenting and promoting the availability of, affordability of, and access to, fixed and wireless broadband technology; the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources and services; digital literacy; awareness of, and the use of, measures to secure the online privacy of, and cybersecurity with respect to, an individual; and the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support for those devices;
- an assessment of how the objectives will impact and interact with the state’s economic and workforce development goals, plans, and outcomes; educational outcomes; health outcomes; civic and social engagement; and delivery of other essential services;
- a description of how the state plans to collaborate with key stakeholders in the state including community anchor institutions; county and municipal government; local educational agencies; nonprofits organizations; organizations that represent people with disabilities, aging individuals, individuals who are English learners and have low levels of literacy; the state’s non-Federal incarcerated population; civil rights organizations; workforce development programs; State agencies that administer adult education and literacy activities; and public housing authorities; and
- a list of organizations with which the administering entity for the state collaborated in developing and implementing the plan.
The digital equity entity is required to make the State Digital Equity Plan available for public comment for no less than 30 days before the state submits an application to the NTIA. The entity must consider all public comments received and make any changes to the plan that the entity determines to be worthwhile. The state’s application must include a description of the changes made due to public comments and include a written response to each comment received.
2. State Capacity Grants ($1.44 billion total; $240 million in FY2022; $300 million each year FY2023-26)
Beginning no later than two years after NTIA starts awarding the planning grants above, it will start awarding capacity grants to support the implementation of State Digital Equity Plans and digital inclusion activities.
Applications for capacity grants must include:
- A description of the entity selected to serve as the administering entity for the state,
- The State Digital Equity Plan of that state,
- A certification that the state, acting through its administering entity, shall: (i) implement the State Digital Equity Plan of the state and (ii) make grants in a manner that is consistent with the aims of the plan, and
- Assurances concerning subgrantees.
- In the case of a state to which NTIA has previously awarded a capacity grant, any amendments to the State Digital Equity Plan.
NTIA will disperse grant funding based on the following criteria:
- 50 percent of the total grant amount shall be based on the population of the eligible state in proportion to the total population of all eligible states.
- 25 percent of the total grant amount shall be based on the number of individuals in the eligible state who are members of covered populations in proportion to the total number of individuals in all eligible states who are members of covered populations.
- 25 percent of the total grant amount shall be based on the comparative lack of availability and adoption of broadband in the eligible state in proportion to the lack of availability and adoption of broadband of all eligible states, which shall be determined according to data collected from—
- the annual inquiry of the Federal Communications Commission conducted under section 706(b) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (47 U.S.C. 1302(b));
- the American Community Survey or, if necessary, other data collected by the Bureau of the Census;
- the NTIA Internet Use Survey, which is administered as the Computer and Internet Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey of the Bureau of the Census; and
- any other source that the NTIA, after appropriate notice and opportunity for public comment, determines to be appropriate.
- The amount of a grant awarded to a state shall not be less than 0.5 percent of the total amount made available to award grants for that fiscal year.
- If, after awarding planning and capacity grants, there are any funds still available, states may apply for additional capacity funding.
States have five years to spend their grant awards. Funds are meant to supplement, not supplant, other federal or state support for these activities.
Grants are to be used for the following purposes:
- Update or maintain the State Digital Equity Plan (no more than 20% of total)
- Implement the State Digital Equity Plan
- Subcontract for assistance implementing the plan
- Pursuing digital inclusion activities consistent with the State Digital Equity Plan
- Report to the state regarding digital inclusion activities
- Evaluate the efficacy of the digital inclusion efforts
NTIA is to provide technical support including ensuring consistency in data reporting and helping states prepare applications.
II. Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program ($1.25 Billion total; $250 Million per year in fiscal years 2022-2026)
The purpose of the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program is to support efforts to achieve digital equity, promote digital inclusion activities, and spur greater adoption of broadband among covered populations.
State digital equity entities (per programs above) are not eligible for these grants. Who is? A political subdivision, an agency, an instrumentality of the state, including an agency responsible for administering adult education and literacy activities; an Indian Tribe; a foundation, corporation, institution, association, or coalition if they are a not-for-profit providing services in the state—but not a school; a community anchor institution (a public or multi-family housing authority, a library, a medical or healthcare provider, a community college or other institution of higher education, a state library agency, and any other nonprofit or governmental community support organization) located in the state; a local educational agency (think public board of education); an entity located in the state that carries out a workforce development program; or a partnership of eligible entities.
In reviewing applications, NTIA will consider:
- If the applicant will increase internet access and broadband adoption among covered populations;
- Geographic diversity of applicants; and
- The extent to which an application may duplicate or conflict with another program
Grants must support at least one of the following:
- Develop and implement digital inclusion activities that benefit covered populations,
- Facilitate the adoption of broadband by covered populations in order to provide educational and employment opportunities to those populations,
- Implement training programs for covered populations that cover basic, advanced, and applied skills—or other workforce development programs,
- Make available equipment, instrumentation, networking capability, hardware and software, or digital network technology for broadband services to covered populations at low or no cost,
- Construct, upgrade, expend, or operate new or existing public access computing centers for covered populations through community anchor institutions, and
- Other activities NTIA deems consistent with the goals of the program.
No more than 10% of a grant can be used for administration. And the Federal share of any project cannot exceed 90%.
Awardees will use up to 10 percent of funds on evaluation. Awardees will submit evaluation reports to NTIA no later than 15 months after the award is granted and annually in years using program funds. Grants are to be used for no more than four years. Funds are meant to supplement, not supplant other federal or state support for these activities.
- Other than individuals who are incarcerated in a federal correctional facility.