How the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives Connected Communities in 2023

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, May 31, 2024

Weekly Digest

How the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives Connected Communities in 2023

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of May 27-31, 2024

Grace Tepper

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives (OMBI) has released its Annual Report for 2023. Through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce established within NTIA the OMBI in August of 2021 to improve America’s economic competitiveness and create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity for all communities. The approach centers on the OMBI collaborating with stakeholders in federal, state, local, and Tribal governments; Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs); and stakeholders in the communications, education, business, and technology fields.

OMBI's 2023 report describes the office's efforts to promote equitable broadband access and adoption through anchor institutions to communities through the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.

Advancing Digital Equity in Three Ways

OMBI works to advance digital equity to expand Internet access, promote digital literacy skills, and recommend how to leverage investment in infrastructure:

1. Collaborate with Key Stakeholders

OMBI collaborates with: 1) Federal agencies that carry out broadband Internet access service support programs; 2) State, local and Tribal governments; 3) historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal Colleges or Universities, Minority Serving Institutions; and, 4) Stakeholders in the communications, education, business, and technology fields.

Through these collaborations, OMBI facilitates knowledge sharing and thought leadership to improve Internet access and adoption among minority communities. OMBI’s collaborations promote initiatives relating to broadband Internet access service connectivity and digital opportunities of anchor communities; develop recommendations to promote the rapid, expanded deployment of broadband Internet access service to unserved, HBCUs, TCUs, MSIs, and anchor communities; and, promote activities that would accelerate the adoption of broadband Internet access service including equipment or personnel necessary to access and use the service.

2. Build Capacity of Anchor Institutions and their Communities

OMBI provides technical assistance to empower applicants, grantees, and collaborating entities with the appropriate tools and resources to promote professional development opportunity partnerships. OMBI supports HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs to leverage investment in broadband Internet infrastructure to expand access for HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs; to engage minority communities in cultivating the conditions for economic growth and opportunity for all communities; and to support their navigation of federal programs dealing with broadband Internet access.

3. Administer the Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program

OMBI provides funding for Internet access, technology, and personnel in an effort to close the digital divide at HBCU, TCU, and MSI anchor institutions and within their communities. The CMC Pilot Program grants are currently in the post-award phase, providing technical assistance and programmatic oversight of the awards. The funding from this grant program was made on a rolling basis, awarding $268 million in grants to 93 anchor institutions including: 43 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 31 Hispanic Serving Institutions, 21 Minority Serving Institutions, and 5 Tribal Colleges and Universities.

With these three action items in mind, OMBI divided up its 2023 progress into three categories: 1) the efforts of the office to expand broadband access; 2) barriers to broadband access and how they can be addressed; and 3) the goals and key performance indicators that the office is using to measure its progress as well as its future goals.


Eligible Recipient Institutions

Historically Black College and University (HBCU): A HBCU is “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association.”

Tribal College and University (TCU): A TCU is an institution that either I) qualifies for funding under the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978 or the Navajo Community College Act or II) is cited in section 532 of the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994.

Minority Servicing Institutions (MSIs) include:

  • Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI): An AANAPISI is an institution with an undergraduate enrollment of at least 10 percent Asian and Pacific Islander American students and with at least 50 percent of students from low-income backgrounds.
  • Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Serving Institution (ANNH): An ANNH is an institution with either at least 20% Alaska Native students or at least 10 percent Native Hawaiian students.
  • Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI): An HSI is an “accredited, degree-granting public or private not-for-profit institution of higher education with 25 percent or more total undergraduate Hispanic full-time equivalent student enrollment.”
  • Native American-Serving Nontribal Institution (NASNTI): A NASNTI is an institution that is not affiliated with American Indian and Native Alaskan tribes but still enrolls at least 10 percent of Native American undergraduate students and receives funding to serve Native American students.
  • Predominantly Black Institution (PBI): A PBI is an institution that serves at least 1,000 undergraduate students, has at least 50 percent low-income or first-generation students, and enrolls at least 40 percent African American students.


Expanding Access to Broadband

OMBI’s authorizing legislation explicitly calls for the Office to collaborate with anchor institutions and their stakeholders to achieve digital equity within the anchor community. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 defines an anchor community as “any area that…is not more than 15 miles from a historically Black college or university, a Tribal College or University, or a Minority-serving institution; and has an estimated median annual household income of not more than 250 percent of the poverty line.”

In the past year, OMBI fully awarded the federal funding for the CMC Pilot Program. Eligible institutions showed significant interest in the program. In total, OMBI received over 200 applications, requesting over $833 million in funding, which was well above the $268 million allocated by Congress for the CMC Pilot Program. OMBI asserts in the report that this strong response and the needs expressed in the applications to the CMC funding opportunity demonstrates the scope, need, and interest by anchor institutions to expand digital access to their surrounding communities. OMBI is maintaining relationships with these applicants to connect them to other funding opportunities and key broadband stakeholders in their states.

In total, OMBI made 93 awards to eligible HBCUs, TCUs, MSIs, and consortia, obligating the full $268 million in available funds. Grantees represent 36 states and territories including American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Puerto Rico. The grants rolled out in five phases. The first phase of awards began work on August 1, 2022. The final phase started seven months later on March 1, 2023. Phase I included five awards, Phase II included 14 awards, 12 awards were made in Phase III, Phase IV brought 26 awards, and 36 awards were made in Phase V.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 required that no less than 20 percent of the amount of the grants be used by eligible recipients to provide broadband Internet access service or eligible equipment to their students. The CMC program successfully exceeded this benchmark with 91 percent of funds being used for this purpose.

Increasing Internet access across diverse communities requires local community solutions to overcome the barriers anchor institutions face. CMC funds are allocated to:

  • Improve infrastructure and IT capacity at the institutions to subsidize high-speed Internet connections through hotspots, laptops, and other devices;
  • Provide workforce training including credentials in cybersecurity, fiber-optic installation, computer skills training and more;
  • Enhance digital literacy skills for students, community members, and anchor institution staff; furnish technology hubs;
  • Provide internships and apprenticeships; and
  • Expand online learning capacity at anchor institutions.

Increasing Access to Broadband Overall: A Laptop of One’s Own

The 27,000 square miles of Navajo Nation is a historically underserved region. Home to 175,000 registered Tribal members, the median household income is $28,052. Diné College’s Connect Navajo project aims to improve educational and economic opportunity on the Navajo Nation by improving Internet access, providing more hardware, and investing in IT staff. Founded in 1968 as Navajo Community College, Diné College works to advance quality post-secondary student learning and development to ensure the well-being of the Diné people. Connect Navajo works to increase student access to the Internet through broadband subscriptions and hotspots, provide laptops to students, and enhance staff technical skills. As of this report, Connect Navajo has donated 225 laptops and 100 Wi-Fi hotspots to students. To increase the power and pride of owning one’s own laptop and Internet device, Connect Navajo is granting the devices to students.

Digital Literacy Skills: Embedding Digital Literacy and Skills Training in the Community

Esperanza College of Eastern University (ECEU) is a branch campus of Eastern University located in the heart of Latino North Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s only Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). ECEU serves a student population that is 84 percent Latino, 97 percent low income, and 80 percent the first generation to attend college. Eastern University’s Hope Digital Literacy project works to educate, equip, and empower the predominantly Latino community to use digital tools to accomplish workforce, education, and health-related goals. The Hope Digital Literacy Project is establishing a digital literacy hub at ECEU to serve as a community drop-in site for one-on-one support and offer digital skills training for both students and members of the broader community. At the time of OMBI's report, the digital literacy hub is coming into shape with the selection of a dedicated Community Digital Resource Project Director, strong community partners, and the launch of a digital needs assessment to shape the hub’s programming.

Barriers to Broadband Access

The pandemic fundamentally changed the way HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs understood how the lack of Internet connectivity on a campus, in a community, and at home could obstruct educational outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the technological inequities of these anchor institutions, along with the negative educational impacts, caused by the lack of Internet connections.

Given their experiences, these institutions appreciate the urgent need to eliminate barriers to high-speed Internet access service and to implement innovative solutions. OMBI's report demonstrates how CMC grantees are innovating and implementing these solutions for their student bodies and their broader communities.

Antiquated broadband infrastructure and access to broadband in many HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs is one of the primary barriers for students and faculty to effectively participate in high-quality digital learning environments. While the majority of HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs have some form of Internet connectivity, these institutions lack the hardware, software, and technology improvements necessary to match the networking capabilities needed by faculty, staff, and students to fully participate in quality digital learning environments. This demand for new hardware, software, and digital technologies are necessary capabilities to offer a first-rate classroom learning and teaching experience that mirrors, and is equitable to, in-person classes. The capabilities deficit is especially stark at HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs that serve communities with the greatest digital needs.

High costs associated with broadband equipment and affordable broadband services present another barrier for HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs. During the pandemic all universities and colleges across the country had new expenses related to COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, and online learning resources to reopen safely for students, faculty, and staff. These new expenses created enormous financial challenges, while at the same time losing financial revenue due to a decrease in enrollment, housing, and other auxiliary services, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. At HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs serving eligible anchor communities, these limited financial resources made it difficult, if not impossible, for anchor institutions to afford robust and reliable broadband connections.

In a digital learning environment, teachers and students need access to devices, Internet connectivity, and digital skills to support optimal teaching and learning. HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, which could not afford nor provide quality broadband services, saw broadband adoption as another barrier for their institutions, among students, and in their anchor communities. These anchor institutions faced challenges related to the digital capacity of their faculty and staff to provide quality digital environments for remote teaching and learning. A lack of digital and technical skills often impedes the effective use of broadband resources, and ability of these anchor institutions to provide quality and engaging digital learning environments.

To bridge the digital divide and empower HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs and their anchor communities, OMBI provides the resources and technical assistance to these anchor institutions and change makers. As these institutions and communities battle their local barriers, OMBI will play a critical role to catalyze more availability, ensure affordability, promote adoption through digital literacy initiatives, advocate for supportive policies, and help identify broadband’s relevance to the community challenges. By actively addressing these barriers, OMBI can unlock the potential of HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs and their anchor communities, enabling them to fully participate in the digital age and leverage broadband connectivity for educational, economic, and social advancement.

Availability and Affordability at Albany State University

Albany State University (ASU), an early CMC grantee located in southwestern Georgia, used a robust implementation campaign and partnerships to make quick progress. Like many of the early grantees, necessity and opportunity served as a catalyst for a thoughtfully designed solution to overcome the dual barriers ofavailability and affordability.

ASU, founded in 1903, is one of 26 public institutions of the University System of Georgia. A majority of ASU students are first-generation learners. Approximately 75 percent of the student body is female, and 97 percent of students received some form of financial aid. Not surprisingly, the community needs mirror the challenges of the student body. The poverty rate of Albany is almost triple the nation’s. A total of 28 census tracts within a 15-mile radius of the university qualify as eligible anchor communities for ASU under the CMC program. These all have median household incomes below 250 percent of the poverty threshold.

ASU developed a multifaceted program with a total funding of $2,997,777 and an implementation timeline from April 2022 to March 2024. The implementation timeline centers on the fulfillment of three goals:

  1. Extend ASU's online reach to remote students; expanding access to education while reducing its costs.
  2. Expand broadband Internet access, connectivity, and digital inclusion to community members.
  3. Build the university's capability to deliver synchronous and asynchronous educational instruction for ASU students and the broader community.

As ASU's implementation winds down, the university intends to share its experiences through the auspices of a replication manual for other HBCUs, the HBCU Library Alliance, Minority Serving Institutions, regional colleges, and the Georgia Higher Education System, NTIA, and interested parties. ASU will also propagate its experience and impact through education trade conferences. These grantee “Battle Over Barriers” lessons and best practices will help a broader spectrum of minority institutions and communities bridge the digital divide.

Looking Ahead

In 2023, OMBI was focused on raising awareness of broadband barriers, forming interagency partnerships, and the crucial implementation of the CMC grant program. In the next year, OMBI will shift its focus from implementation to the first full year of CMC results. Assessing these results includes developing a metrics framework, a logic model for understanding potential economic impact, and the lessons learned in this early phase of implementation. These early lessons will inform how anchor institutions battle broadband barriers and navigate around implementation obstacles.

To measure OMBI’s work and CMC grantee progress, OMBI has developed nine key metrics tied to specific program goals. Federal Program Officers (FPOs) track these metrics in their scheduled reporting milestones with partners which serve as a barometer for implementation progress and the pilot program’s success. Each key goal has specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that serve as vital statistics for programmatic health.

Goal 1: Collaborate with federal agencies to expand access to broadband service in anchor communities.

  • KPI 1: Number of partnerships with federal agencies that carry out broadband Internet access service support programs.
  • KPI 2: Number of digital technical trainings, webinars, and digital opportunities for anchor communities.

Goal 2: Expand broadband Internet capacity and connectivity at HBCUs, TCUs and MSIs.

  • KPI 3: Number of new broadband subscriptions.
  • KPI 4: Number of HBCU, TCU, and MSI campuses receiving broadband network upgrades.

Goal 3: Increase accessibility to devices for students and patrons to improve remote learning outcomes.

  • KPI 5: Number of devices distributed to students and patrons previously without devices.
  • KPI 6: Faculty and staff that received professional development training to improve remote learning.

Goal 4: Provide community members with the workforce and digital skills training to attain certification and jobs.

  • KPI 7: Number of community members trained in workforce development and digital skills.
  • KPI 8: Number of individuals awarded new certification upon training completion.
  • KPI 9: Number of jobs filled from community-based programs implemented.

What to Expect in 2024

As CMC grantee programs proceed along their maturation cycle, the third report in 2024 will have the opportunity to explore more data and more detail. The data, derived from the grantee reporting cycle, will shed light on how specific approaches best counter the barriers to broadband connectivity. Data will also reveal how, when, and why partnership frameworks proved crucial to the planning, implementation, and impact at the institutional and anchor community levels.

In turn, qualitative feedback from anchor institutions and community partners will provide lessons from the field. This insight will explain how grantee solutions outflanked the local, structural, and contextual barriers to digital inclusion. These accounts and experiences will also provide more understanding of the operational and logistical challenges. This earned wisdom from peers will prove essential to expedite program success beyond pilot program communities. These lessons, both strategic and tactical, will prove instrumental to advancing the OMBI mission and the anchor institution’s ability to pivot toward successful outcomes.

Visit NTIA's BroadbandUSA website to see the full list of Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant recipients.

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Upcoming Events

Jun 4––Powering AI: Examining America’s Energy and Technology Future (House Commerce Committee)

Jun 4––Digital Opportunities: Growing Connections Across North Carolina (Institute for Emerging Issues)

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Jun 11––How to Build a Public Broadband Network (Benton Institute for Broadband & Society)

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By Grace Tepper.