NTIA Needs to Hear From You About Two New Digital Equity Programs

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, March 3, 2023

Weekly Digest

NTIA Needs to Hear From You About Two New Digital Equity Programs

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Round-Up for the Week of February 27-March 3, 2023

Kevin Taglang

On March 1, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) sought public comment on the design and implementation of two components of the Digital Equity Act of 2021 (a part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act): the $1.44 billion State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. The goal of the programs is to promote adoption and meaningful use of the Internet among underrepresented communities and populations, including low-income households, veterans, aging individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, rural residents and others.

The NTIA’s strategy is to engage with partners, stakeholders, and most importantly, individuals with lived experiences who faced challenges of having access to and/or the skills and devices to fully utilize affordable, reliable, high-speed internet, to help achieve President Joe Biden’s goal to close the digital divide and transform the lives of all Americans. "But in order to achieve this objective," the NTIA's request reads, "we need to hear from you." This proceeding is your opportunity to inform how NTIA designs programs that work to achieve this national and community-driven opportunity for change.

Below we look at some key definitions the NTIA is using in this proceeding, some background on NTIA's recent digital equity work, and the questions NTIA seeks input on. Of note, this is just a quick summary of the NTIA's request for comment; for anyone seeking to participate in the proceeding, please read the public notice for details about how you can provide input.

Key Definitions

The NTIA is using specific definitions of key terms—many of which come directly from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The law defines “digital equity” as “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.”

“Digital inclusion” is defined as “(A)… 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 a --: (i) reliable fixed and wireless broadband internet service; (ii) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; and (iii) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration; and (B) includes -- (i) obtaining access to digital literacy training; (ii) the provision of quality technical support; and (iii) obtaining basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity.”

The infrastructure law also seeks to focus digital equity efforts on specific vulnerable communities which Congress calls "Covered Populations" which include: (1) individuals who live in low-income households, (2) aging individuals, (3) incarcerated individuals, other than individuals who are incarcerated in a Federal correctional facility, (4) veterans, (5) individuals with disabilities, (6) individuals with a language barrier, including individuals who are English learners and have low levels of literacy, (7) racial and ethnic minorities, and (8) rural inhabitants.

"Access" considers the availability of high-speed, reliable Internet and related equipment, including having Internet connections and technology at home or in community institutions (e.g., free public Wi-Fi, public computer centers).

"Digital Literacy" measures an individual’s ability to use the Internet and modern technologies, such as computers and smartphones.

"Meaningful Use" refers to how an individual uses their digital literacy skills to enhance educational and employment opportunities.

"Community anchor institution" means a public school, 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

Work So Far: State Digital Equity Planning Grants

NTIA's State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program was created by the Digital Equity Act of 2021. From late-August to late-December 2022, NTIA awarded $60 million for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. territories, Indian Tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations to identify barriers to digital equity and strategies for overcoming those barriers.(1)

States must develop a statewide digital equity plan, solicit and respond to public comments on the draft plan, and finalize that draft plan. States must submit the digital equity plan to NTIA within the one-year award period. The plans must include:

  • a state's vision of digital equity which describes what success looks like for the state, informs strategies, serves as a guide for setting goals and objectives, and determines the activities the state will prioritize in the Digital Equity Plan.
  • identification of the barriers to digital equity faced by Covered Populations in the state;
  • measurable objectives for documenting and promoting, among each Covered Population, the achievement of digital equity in the minimum of five key areas: (i) the availability of, and affordability of access to, fixed and wireless broadband technology; (ii) the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources and services; (iii) digital literacy; (iv) awareness of, and the use of, measures to secure the online privacy of, and cybersecurity with respect to, an individual; and (v) the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support for those devices;
  • an assessment of how the measurable objectives for the Covered Populations will affect and interact with the states’ (i) economic and workforce development goals, plans and outcomes, (ii) educational outcomes, (iii) health outcomes, and (iv) civic and social engagement, and (v) and delivery of other essential services;
  • a description of how the State plans to collaborate with key stakeholders in the State including (i) community anchor institutions, (ii) county and municipal governments; (iii) local educational agencies; (iv) where applicable, Indian Tribes, Alaska Native entities, or Native Hawaiian organizations; (v) nonprofit organizations; (vi) organizations that represent Covered Populations; (vii) civil rights organizations; (viii) entities that carry out workforce development programs; (ix) agencies of the State that are responsible for administering or supervising adult education and literacy activities in the State; and (x) public housing authorities in the State; and
  • a list of organizations with which the state collaborated in developing and implementing the State Digital Equity Plan.

NTIA seeks input on two questions related to state digital equity plans.

Question 1: During the public comment period for the states’ digital equity plans, what guidance should NTIA and/or each state provide to enable communities to review and provide actionable feedback to states regarding their state digital equity plans? What criteria/factors/outcomes should communities focus on in their review? How can NTIA ensure that states/territories consult with Tribal entities about how best to meet Tribal members’ needs?

Question 2: Over the next year, NTIA will deliver technical assistance for states and territories to develop holistic, actionable, and impactful state digital equity plans. NTIA has created a Needs Assessment Guide, Asset Mapping Guide, Digital Equity Plan Guidance, Best Practices, Workforce Planning Guide, webinars, and other technical assistance resources. What additional guidance/resources should NTIA provide? What additional guidance can NTIA provide to help states and community organizations utilize other federal tools to close the digital divide by increasing access and reducing cost like the Affordable Connectivity Program? Individuals and communities who are most impacted by the digital divide are in the best position to help states, territories, and Tribal entities understand the inequities and how best to focus and scale local efforts. How can individuals and communities provide feedback to ensure their unique communities’ needs are solicited, considered, and reflected in digital equity plans?

New Program: State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program

The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program is a $1.44 billion formula grant program in support of the implementation of state digital equity plans. All states, territories, Indian Tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations are eligible for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program. States must develop a statewide digital equity plan to be eligible to receive State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program support.

NTIA seeks public comment on a number of questions as it sets up the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program.

Question 3: How should NTIA define success for the Capacity Grant Program? What outcomes are most important to measure? How should NTIA measure the success of the Capacity Grant Program, including measures and methods?

Question 4: How should NTIA design the Capacity Grant Program to ensure equity is achieved? 

Question 5: What criteria/factors should NTIA take into consideration when assessing whether states, territories, and Tribal entities are meeting the stated goals of their Digital Equity Plans? How should NTIA measure each Digital Equity Plan’s progress in the short-term (one year or less) and long-term (two or more years)?

Question 6: What reporting requirements should NTIA establish for grantees to ensure that the voices of those most impacted by the digital divide are reflected in the implementation and updates of the Digital Equity Plans? What steps, if any, should NTIA take to monitor and evaluate implementation practices? From a sustainability perspective, what role can collaborations, partnerships, and coalitions play? 

Question 7: What rules, if any, should NTIA develop to ensure that digital equity is achieved in the Capacity Grant Program?

New Program: Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program

The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program is a $1.25 billion program to award grants to support efforts to achieve digital equity, promote digital inclusion activities, and spur greater internet adoption among Covered Populations. The purpose of the Competitive Grant Program is to:

  1. develop and implement digital inclusion activities that benefit the Covered Populations;
  2. facilitate internet adoption by Covered Populations in order to provide educational and employment opportunities to those Covered Populations;
  3. implement training programs for Covered Populations that cover basic, advance, and applied skills or other workforce development programs;
  4. make available equipment, instrumentation, networking capability, hardware and software, or digital network technology for broadband services to Covered Populations at low or no cost;
  5. construct, upgrade, expend, or operate new or existing public access computing centers for Covered Populations through community anchor institutions; and
  6. undertake any other project and activity that the Assistant Secretary finds to be consistent with the purposes for which the Digital Equity Competitive Program is established.

The state entity that administers its State Digital Equity Planning Grant and State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Programs is not eligible for Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program grants. Eligibility is limited to: 

  1. a political subdivision, agency or instrumentality of a state, including an agency of a state that is responsible for administering or supervising adult education and literacy activities, or for providing public housing, in the state,
  2. an Indian Tribe, an Alaska Native entity, or a Native Hawaiian organization;
  3. a foundation, corporation, institution, or association that is a nonprofit entity and not a school;
  4. a community anchor institution, which includes a library or a state library agency;
  5. a local educational agency;
  6. an entity that carries out a workforce development program;
  7. a partnership between any of the entities described in the foregoing (1)-(6); and
  8. a partnership between an entity described in the foregoing (1)-(6) and an entity that the NTIA determines to be in the public interest and is not a school.

Here are NTIA's questions about the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program:

Question 8: How should NTIA define success for the Competitive Grant Program? What outcomes are most important to measure? How should NTIA measure the success of the Competitive Grant Program, including specific measures? Are the measures of success the same or different from the Capacity Grant Program?

Question 9: What kind of activities or projects should the NTIA consider for inclusion in eligible projects and activities for the Competitive Grant Program?

Question 10: What group or groups that are not already listed should the NTIA consider to be eligible to apply for the Competitive Grant Program?

Question 11: What rules, if any, should the NTIA develop to ensure that digital equity is achieved in the Competitive Grant Program?

Question 12: How should NTIA design a scoring rubric system to ensure that digital equity will be achieved in the Competitive Grant Program? What factors, elements, and/or criteria should NTIA consider to ensure that funding is equitably distributed to serve the Covered Populations, e.g., by geography, covered population, project type, etc.?

Question 13: Should NTIA use weighted scoring to rank and prioritize criteria for evaluation by assigning a numeric value to each criterion? If so, are there specific evaluation criteria to which NTIA should provide more weight or value in the evaluation criteria for the Competitive Grant Program (i.e., place more weight on collaborations that support building the capacity of local, community-based organizations that are delivering meaningful and impactful services to the Covered Populations, provide more than 10% of matching funds or resources, or intend to provide project benefits to multiple communities or Covered Populations)?

Question 14: What additional weight, if any, should NTIA give to proposed projects that align with the state, territory, and/or Tribal entity digital equity plans?

Measuring Impact

NTIA is interested in identifying successful project models, partnerships, activities, and strategies for digital equity projects that deliver impact and sustainable outcomes. 

Question 15: What are examples of past or current evidence-based or evidence-informed digital equity and/or inclusion projects or other relevant or similar projects that NTIA can showcase as a part of its technical assistance efforts to support applicants in identifying promising or evidence-based project models, partnerships, activities, and strategies to consider, replicate, and leverage lessons learned as applicable?

Question 16: How should grantees define digital equity with respect to each of the Covered Populations? What does success look like for each of the Covered Populations? How should NTIA measure the effects of access to and adoption of, and meaningful use of the Internet for each Covered Population? What examples of equity gap analysis and tools should the Assistant Secretary consider when measuring outcomes as they relate to each Covered Populations? To what extent should grantees disaggregate data within each of the Covered Populations to reveal the underlying trends and patterns?

Question 17: What metrics and performance data infrastructure and data governance strategies and tools are needed to create a vibrant digital equity ecosystem (e.g. metrics, digital skills, sustainability) to measure program effectiveness and effects for Covered Populations? What publicly available datasets and tools should NTIA and grantees (e.g., states, territories, non-profits, develop) enhance or support to benchmark and to track progress of grantee goals and objectives?

Question 18: NTIA will require regular grantee performance and progress reporting, e.g., semi-annually, project close out to monitor grantee implementation of funded projects and capture metrics, outcomes, and impact. How should NTIA measure grantees implementation of such metric tracking? To what extent should NTIA require standardized inputs, metrics, and measures in order to facilitate nationwide insights?

Question 19: For each of the Covered Populations, what are proven strategies and tactics, projects or programs, with outcome-based measures and impacts, that promote and achieve digital equity?

Question 20: Youth and young adults are members of each of the Covered Populations except for Older Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on academic achievement, physical and mental health, and earning opportunities for our youth and young adults. How can NTIA encourage and measure the effects of investments in our youth and young adult?

Question 21: To ensure all learners (youth, adult, incarcerated, etc.) have access to the opportunities that technology unlocks, how should NTIA promote a baseline or fundamental standard for digital literacy for all learners? What kind of baselines should NTIA’s grant programs strive to achieve and should the intended outcomes be based on a type of standard which includes varying levels of digital skills, such as pre-basic, basic, intermediate and advanced? If so, please elaborate.

Digital Equity and BEAD

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also created the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, providing $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, Washington (DC), Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. BEAD guidelines also require states and territories to engage stakeholders, including localities and those historically excluded communities, to design and implement projects. 

In general, the “Covered Populations” under Digital Equity Grant Programs are comparable to the “Underrepresented Communities” under BEAD. Under BEAD, “Underrepresented Communities” refers to groups that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, including but not limited to: low-income households, aging individuals, incarcerated individuals, veterans, persons of color, Indigenous and Native American persons, members of ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, persons with limited English proficiency, persons who live in rural areas, and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

Question 22: How can NTIA best ensure that states and territories that receive funding under BEAD and Digital Equity Programs are closely aligning their planning efforts to close the equity gaps for all Covered Populations? How can NTIA work with the states, territories, and their communities to promote the collective impact and outcomes between BEAD’s Five-Year Action Plan and States’ Digital Equity Plans to achieve equity for its Underrepresented Communities/Covered Populations?

Question 23: How can NTIA encourage the design and implementation of Digital Equity Programs to support and advance the economic mobility of members of Underrepresented Communities/Covered Populations to support BEAD implementation and broader economic outcomes (e.g., through new skills, upskilling, re-skilling, career pathways, and other high-quality workforce development activities)?

Question 24: How can the BEAD and Digital Equity Programs support and promote youth employment and skills building? What kind of programs, projects, and partnerships—based on existing evidence—would encourage and prepare youth to have the digital skills needed to be workforce-ready, but also to enter Internet and Internet-related careers?

Next Steps

The deadline for submitting answers to NTIA's questions is May 1, 2023. Again, this is just a quick summary of the NTIA's request for comment; for anyone seeking to participate in the proceeding, please read the public notice for details about how you can provide input.

NTIA would like to learn from stakeholder experiences to inform the development of these programs. The agency specifically seeks input from individuals who are members of the Covered Populations. If that's you or you work with these populations, please consider giving NTIA your input. 

Finally, this request for comment is just one part of NTIA's outreach. The agency is planning a series of public virtual listening sessions which will be announced at a later date. As they are announced, we will add them to the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Events Calendar


  1. Generally, we use "states" as shorthand for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Mar 6—State of the Net 2023 (Internet Education Foundation)

Mar 6—Digital Ecosystem Forum (Federal Communications Commission)

Mar 6—Public Meeting on Broadband Funding (Delaware Department of Technology and Information)

Mar 7—INCOMPAS Policy Summit

Mar 9—Big Tech & Speech Summit (Broadband Breakfast)

Mar 9—Navigating the FCC’s Universal Service Program: Compliance Requirements for Service Providers (Keller & Hechman)

Mar 10—Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting (National Telecommunications and Information Administration)

Mar 13—California Digital Equity Summit (CENIC)

Mar 15—2023 State of Telecom Policy (Verizon)

Mar 16—March 2023 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Mar 20—US Spectrum Allocation Needs Reform: Lessons From the C-Band Controversy (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Mar 28—America Connected (Total Telecom)

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
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