Broadband's Role in Equity Action Plans

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, April 29, 2022

Weekly Digest

Broadband's Role in Equity Action Plans

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Round-Up for the Week of April 25-29

Grace Tepper

On President Biden's first day in office, he signed the Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The January 20, 2021 order states that the federal government must pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all. In doing this, the President tasked all executive departments and agencies with recognizing and working to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.

The Biden Administration provided definitions for agencies to use as they assess their policies and prioritize equity in the long term. The term “equity,” as defined by the order, means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality. The term “underserved communities” refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, as exemplified by the list in the preceding definition of “equity.”

With these definitions, federal agencies were to pursue more equitable goals and policy reforms. But how would they be held accountable? The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was put in charge of this effort. The executive order dictates that the head of each agency shall, in consultation with the Director of OMB, select certain of the agency’s programs and policies for a review that will assess whether underserved communities and their members face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities available pursuant to those policies and programs. Then, each agency should produce a plan for addressing those barriers to equity.

A year and some months after the President's executive order, federal agencies have submitted their Equity Action Plans. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) have all submitted plans including the advancement of equity in federal broadband programs and policies. Here, we look at how the federal government's chief broadband agencies are working towards equitable broadband for all.

Federal Communications Commission

The FCC released its Equity Action Plan on April 14, 2022. The FCC's divides this strategic goal into four key agency programs and policies. For each one, the FCC provides an overview of the program/policy goals and background. Then, the agency assesses barriers to equitable outcomes associated with the given subject area. The FCC follows this with actions it commits to taking to ameliorate these barriers, the intended impact of its actions, and how it aims to track its progress and hold itself accountable to promoting equity and inclusion. Here's broadband's role in the FCC's Equity Action Plan.

Preventing Digital Discrimination Rulemaking

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act tasked the FCC with the responsibility to "facilitate equal access to broadband," including "taking into account technical and economic feasibility, including by preventing digital discrimination of access based on income, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin and identifying necessary steps to eliminate such discrimination." The FCC has established a Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination to help accomplish this goal and is working on a proceeding regarding the prevention of digital discrimination.

To situate the barriers to preventing digital discrimination, the FCC defines the digital divide and the conditions for broadband access as stated in the Infrastructure Act. The digital divide is defined as the disproportionate lack of broadband service by "people of color and others who have been historically underserved, persons who live in rural areas, persons with disabilities, and persons otherwise affected by persistent poverty, discrimination, or inequality." When compared to the definitions included in the Biden Administration's executive order, it appears that efforts to close the digital divide through universal broadband inherently are—or should be—pursuits to achieve digital equity for underserved communities in the United States. The FCC notes the digital equity objectives outlined in the Infrastructure Act:

  1. subscribers should benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service within the service area of a provider of such service;
  2. the term equal access...means the equal opportunity to subscribe to an offered service that provides comparable speeds, capacities, latency, and other quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions; and
  3. the FCC should take steps to ensure that all people of the United States benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service.

To address the broadband goals of the Infrastructure Act, the FCC refers to the ongoing work of its Communications Equity and Diversity Council (CEDC). In 2021, the FCC updated the mission of the CEDC to "review more broadly critical diversity and equity issues across the tech sector." The CEDC is currently engaged in developing recommendations to the FCC on model policies and best practices that can be adopted by states and localities to ensure that broadband internet access service providers do not engage in digital discrimination. In conjunction with the CEDC, the FCC's Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination is focusing on creating the necessary rules and policies that will combat digital discrimination and promote equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of zip code, income level, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin.

Not later than 2 years after November 15, 2021, the FCC will adopt final rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, taking into account the issues of technical and economic feasibility presented by that objective. This includes: (1) preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin; and (2) identifying necessary steps for the FCC to take to eliminate discrimination described in (1). While the FCC has not started a rulemaking proceeding yet to achieve this objective, it did launch a Notice of Inquiry aimed at understanding the meaning of relevant terms and concepts and how they should be applied in ensuring equal access to broadband, preventing digital discrimination, and identifying steps the FCC should take to eliminate digital discrimination. 

To hold itself accountable, the FCC refers to one of the pillars of its Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2026. In the plan, the FCC names promoting equity, inclusion, and accessibility as one of its strategic goals moving forward:

The FCC will seek to gain a deeper understanding of how the agency’s rules, policies, and programs may promote or inhibit advances in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The FCC will pursue focused action and investments to eliminate historical, systemic, and structural barriers that perpetuate disadvantaged or underserved individuals and communities. In so doing, the FCC will work to ensure equitable and inclusive access and facilitate the ability of underserved individuals and communities to leverage and benefit from the wide range of opportunities made possible by digital technologies, media, communication services, and next-generation networks. In addition, the FCC recognizes that it is more effective when its workforce reflects the experience, judgement, and input of individuals from many different backgrounds. Advancing equity is core to the agency’s management and policymaking processes and will benefit all Americans.

The Affordable Connectivity Program

The FCC launched the Affordable Connectivity Program, the congressionally created successor to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, in January 2022. The $14.2 billion program offers qualifying low-income households a monthly federal subsidy on their broadband service, as well as the opportunity to receive a low-cost device from certain service providers. The barrier to equitable broadband access here, per the Equity Action Plan, is that many households across the country struggle with how to pay both their living expenses and broadband bills.

The Affordable Connectivity Program's objective is to connect low-income underserved households with broadband internet access services. By reducing the monthly cost of internet service for qualifying households, the Affordable Connectivity Program addresses the affordability crisis for low-income households without the internet access they need. The FCC outlines, in its efforts to address the barrier of affordability, steps it has taken to improve the Affordable Connectivity Program since its inception. This includes  procedures that will thoughtfully transition Emergency Broadband Benefit Program participants to the Affordable Connectivity Program by notifying participants and giving them the time and opportunity to adjust their services if necessary. Congress also made a few key changes to the way a household qualifies for support for the Affordable Connectivity Program, leading the FCC to open up the income qualifications of the program and make it available to more families in need of support. Members of a variety of other federal subsidy initiatives–like Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or Lifeline, Medicaid, SNAP, and Federal Public Housing Assistance programs–remain eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program as they did the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

To track its progress on the Affordable Connectivity Program and this equity goal, the FCC maintains transparent ongoing statistics about enrollment and claims with the Universal Service Administrative Company. Here, the FCC tracks the program's success. In addition, the FCC is planning efforts to expand awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program, build an outreach grants program, and utilize focus groups and research to improve the enrollment process for those who qualify, and find ways to build trust in the process.

The FCC was encouraged by Congress to adopt new consumer protection policies for the Affordable Connectivity Program. As such, the FCC put in place new rules restricting abusive upselling and downselling practices so households are not required to subscribe to more or less than they need just to enroll in the program. Other consumer protection policies include the dispelling of credit checks and past debts as barriers for participation and the establishment of a dedicated complaint process specifically for the Affordable Connectivity Program. Furthermore, the FCC is going to explore ways to lean on trusted government navigators at the state and local level who can help members of their community work their way through the application process. As a last measure, the FCC will also be setting up a risk assessment of the program’s controls and payment processes as well as an assessment of fraud risk.

The Emergency Connectivity Fund: Addressing the Homework Gap

The Emergency Connectivity Fund, authorized by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, was launched by the FCC mid-2021. The Emergency Connectivity Fund is a $7.17 billion program that is helping schools and libraries provide the tools and services their communities need for remote learning during the COVID-19 emergency period. The program provides support for students, school staff, and library patrons who would otherwise lack necessary Internet access or the devices they need to connect to classrooms.

The Emergency Connectivity Program aims to counter the barrier to education for all students in the United States due to inequities in broadband access. According to the FCC, students' lack of broadband access and the necessary devices to take advantage of the benefits of broadband is an especially cruel part of the digital divide known as the Homework Gap.

Through the Emergency Connectivity Program, qualifying schools and libraries can receive eligible equipment including Wi-Fi hotspots, modems (including air cards), routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and connected devices (laptop and tablet computers). The FCC states that schools and libraries can also receive funding for commercially available broadband service that provides a fixed or mobile broadband connection for off-campus use by students, school staff or library patrons. In limited instances, a school or library that can demonstrate it has no available service options sufficient to support remote learning may seek funding for the construction of new networks to provide remote learning and the equipment needed for datacasting services.

The Emergency Connectivity Fund closed its first application filing window on August 13, 2021, and its second on October 13, 2021. Its third application filing window opened on April 28, 2022, and closes May 13, 2022. The FCC maintains a list of current funding commitment information for the program. To maintain accountability, the FCC has established performance goals and targets to ensure that students, as well as school staff and library patrons with unmet needs, have access to connected devices and broadband services for off campus use through implementation of the Emergency Connectivity Fund per the agency's "100 Percent" Broadband Policy. The FCC will also continue to audit the program to ensure participant compliance and stay ahead of waste, fraud, and abuse.

Broadband Mapping

The FCC's final pillar of its Equity Action Plan is its broadband mapping efforts. The FCC is in the process of updating its current broadband maps with more detailed and precise information on the availability of fixed and mobile broadband services. Updated broadband maps will help service providers and governments "to make decisions about where service is needed and how to fund the expansion of broadband services."

The FCC states that "broadband is no longer nice to have; it’s a need to have." Thus, widespread broadband availability and the equitable distribution of broadband services is what updated and accurate broadband maps aim to aid. The barriers to this effort, according to the Equity Action plan, have been determining how many people face availability issues, determining where they live, and identifying what technologies could work best to connect them.

Through the Broadband DATA Act, the FCC was directed by Congress to update its data collection practices and improve its broadband maps. This includes allowing feedback from consumers and state, local, and Tribal governments about the availability and quality of broadband services in the US. The FCC has set up a new method for collecting information to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability using public input that will supplement the information the FCC gathers from carriers. The FCC is also developing, testing, and launching information technology systems to collect and verify these data. From there, the FCC will create a publicly accessible, data-base driven nationwide map of locations where broadband is truly available throughout the United States.

To track the FCC's progress on this goal, the agency has established a Broadband Data Task Force to "coordinate and expedite the design and construction of new systems for collecting and verifying data to carry out the Broadband DATA Act and more accurately measure and reflect the Nation’s broadband needs." The FCC created a new webpage to be the central location for information about its progress and provide consumers the opportunity to submit feedback on the availability and quality of broadband near them. The FCC will hold itself accountable to providing an accurate representation of broadband availability and the digital divide in the US through its "100 Percent" Broadband Policy strategic goal. In addition, the FCC has established performance goals and targets to ensure that the FCC implements the requirements of the Broadband DATA Act by collecting and mapping broadband coverage data submitted by providers and incorporating public feedback through the FCC’s challenge process.

Department of Commerce

The Department of Commerce begins its Equity Action Plan, submitted April 14, 2022, with a pledge to drive both external-facing efforts to empower underserved communities in the economy and internal efforts to build a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible organization. The three broad goals outlined in this Equity Action Plan are to build innovation ecosystems and grow businesses in historically underserved communities and to make Department of Commerce services, science, and data more accessible. Within these goals, the Department of Commerce lays out six equity actions it will take to accomplish them. Chief among those, the first equity action, is closing the digital divide.

Equity Action #1: Closing the Digital Divide

According to the Equity Action Plan, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will lead efforts to bring reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access to all Americans. NTIA will measure success both in terms of access and adoption, ensuring the broadband investments effectively connect millions of underserved Americans to the innovation economy.

Many Americans—and disproportionately those living in rural areas, on Tribal lands, and in communities of color—do not have access to reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband, nor the tools to use such services. Using data from FCC maps, NTIA estimates that more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds, which is a particular problem in rural communities and on Tribal lands. According to the NTIA Internet Use Survey, 26 percent of Americans did not use the internet from home in 2019. That number was much higher for rural households, African American households, and low-income households (that is, making less than $25,000/year).

To overcome these barriers to universal broadband, the Department of Commerce will administer over $50 billion in grant funds through the NTIA to "invest in broadband infrastructure deployment, affordability, and digital inclusion efforts." In particular, these efforts will prioritize communities left behind in the digital revolution—underserved communities—to ensure equitable access to broadband.

NTIA will expand universal broadband through state and territory broadband grants, including the following programs:

  • Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program: NTIA will distribute $42.45 billion among states, territories, DC, and Puerto Rico for projects that support broadband infrastructure deployment and adoption.
  • Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program: NTIA will distribute $1 billion to expand and extend middle mile infrastructure to reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas to the internet backbone.
  • Digital Equity Act: NTIA will distribute $2.75 billion to states and territories to promote digital inclusion and ensure all individuals and communities have the opportunity to acquire the same skills, technology, and capacity needed to engage in the nation’s digital economy. In the near term, NTIA will administer the $60M State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program to support the development of Digital Equity Plans for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Once the planning phase concludes, NTIA will administer the $1.44 billion State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, a formula grant program for states and territories to implement their Digital Equity Plans. Finally, NTIA will administer the $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program for specific political subdivisions to implement digital equity projects.

NTIA will also expand affordable and reliable access to high-speed broadband service through direct grants:

  • Through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, NTIA will fund projects that will provide more than 200,000 Tribal households with either reliable, affordable high-speed broadband access or subsidized or free broadband access.
  • Through the Broadband Infrastructure Program, NTIA is funding reliable, affordable high speed broadband infrastructure deployment to more than 130,000 homes in predominantly rural areas.
  • Through the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, NTIA will award $268 million in grant funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities for the purchase of broadband internet access service and eligible equipment or to hire and train information technology personnel.

Other than these initiatives, the NTIA has already launched the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives (OMBI), to expand NTIA’s reach to engage Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Minority Serving Institutions, and their surrounding anchor communities. As part of its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, NTIA has also provided technical assistance webinars, tribal consultations, and directed outreach to individual, regional, and national tribal organizations. Separately, NTIA has helped over 1,000 participants prepare as potential applicants for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, which received more than 200 applications with requests totaling approximately $833 million in funding (with $268 million available).

NTIA will track its progress towards eliminating the digital divide by collecting performance and results data for grant-funded projects. This includes the number of homes or locations passed by broadband, the number of individuals or households receiving subsidized or free broadband services, and the number of training hours provided to communities. In addition, NTIA will track the completion and submission of the State and Territory Digital Equity Plans and the Five-Year Broadband Action Plans. NTIA also will track its efforts to provide technical assistance to support all grant-funded efforts, from infrastructure deployment to planning and engagement with communities with the greatest broadband need. For planning grants, NTIA will be able to track the results and success of planning efforts through the state and territory selection of subgrants for broadband infrastructure deployment in the BEAD Program and digital inclusion and equity projects in the state capacity grants for digital equity. Lastly, the Equity Action Plan states that in five to seven years, NTIA will be able to conduct an economic impact analysis for areas in which the Department of Commerce invested funds for broadband efforts to assess its impact, from access and adoption, through improved economic, health, and educational outcomes.

The Department of Commerce intends to hold itself accountable by developing comprehensive plans to include milestones for critical activities needed to support the successful implementation of its grant programs and technical assistance. The Department states that NTIA will also conduct proactive outreach and engagement with communities of color, rural communities, and Tribal communities, as well as groups representing vulnerable populations to ensure understanding of their unique community needs, identify any associated barriers to promote their engagement with NTIA’s programs and obtain feedback on how NTIA could further support their communities.

US Department of Agriculture

The USDA's Equity Action Plan, released on February 10, 2022, presents a four-pronged approach to advancing racial justice and equity in its programs and policies. First, USDA challenged its offices and mission areas to identify actions that will build and maintain trust, reduce barriers to access, and increase USDA investments in underserved communities. Second, USDA is creating a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) strategic plan and hiring a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Third, USDA is establishing an Equity Commission comprised of external stakeholders to conduct a thorough review of USDA policies and programs and provide the Agriculture Secretary with a set of recommendations for how the agency can take action to advance equity. The Equity Commission and its Subcommittee for Agriculture will provide an initial set of recommendations in late 2022. Lastly, the debt relief provision in Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is central to the USDA’s strategy for advancing equity among a subset of historically underserved agricultural producers. This provision provides USDA with approximately $5 billion to provide loan payments to USDA direct and guaranteed loan borrowers from socially disadvantaged groups. While this program is currently on hold due to several court-ordered national preliminary injunctions, the USDA, the Department of Justice, and the Biden Administration are currently defending the program in federal court.

Broadband in the USDA's Rural Development Initiatives

The USDA's Rural Development provides nearly $40 billion in financing for housing, water, community facilities, broadband, businesses, and other critical community infrastructure each year. Within Rural Development, USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) provides much-needed infrastructure or infrastructure improvements to rural communities, including telecommunications services. USDA's chief broadband program, the ReConnect Program, offers loans, grants, and loan-grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that currently do not have sufficient access to broadband. To date, USDA has invested a total of $1,508,129,456 in the ReConnect Program.

However, the households and communities that most need critical USDA infrastructure investments face barriers to access. The USDA plan states that complex application processes for Rural Development programs can mean that higher capacity communities with the resources to hire a grant writer or submit a sophisticated application often win out over persistently poor communities. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on gaps in access to resources to effectively meet the needs of rural community members. According to USDA, the current availability of competitive financial program resources is not enough to build equitable rural prosperity.

To address the barriers rural communities face in participating in federal broadband infrastructure programs, the USDA is establishing a "place-based all-of-government model to ensure rural communities benefit from targeted partnerships with a collaborative network of multiple federal agencies and programs." Through this, the USDA aims to provide communities with direct access to diverse resources where unique needs are matched with the right support. USDA recognizes that many Rural Development grant and technical assistance programs have the potential to support long-term equitable rural prosperity by leveraging funding assistance to key Biden Administration priorities. USDA is therefore incorporating key Administration priorities into Rural Development program scoring and associated funding announcements beginning with the fiscal year 2022 funding announcements. These priorities are for projects that assist rural communities in recovering from COVID-19, ensure rural residents have equitable access to Rural Development programs, and reduce climate pollution and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change through economic support to rural communities. USDA's broadband-specific infrastructure initiatives will benefit from its commitments to equity in all of its Rural Development programs.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

May 2-5—Broadband Communities Summit 2022 (Broadband Communities)

May 5—Tech regulation beyond big tech (Protocol)

May 10—Digital Equity Forum (Washington State Department of Commerce)

May 11—Digital Equity Forum (Washington State Department of Commerce)

May 11—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Programs Pre-NOFO Technical Assistance Webinar #5 (NTIA)

May 19—May 2022 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

May 19—Why the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Matters: A Breakdown and an Update (Michelson 20MM Foundation)

May 23—Broadband Technology Summit (Fierce)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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