Philanthropy Builds Capacity So Equity Is at the Forefront of Broadband Infrastructure Dollars Spent in California

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Philanthropy Builds Capacity So Equity Is at the Forefront of Broadband Infrastructure Dollars Spent in California

Adrianne B. Furniss

Building a critical mass of informed and organized community voices in the broadband policymaking arena to balance the historical presence of private industry is a long-term capacity challenge in California—and in other states. How do digital equity advocates make their voices heard during the rulemaking process for California’s $6 billion statewide broadband rollout?

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has new resources and authorities to be a partner to local governments and other agencies in closing the digital divide. Right now, the CPUC is determining specific applications and mechanisms for distributing state dollars for middle- and last-mile infrastructure and the loan loss program through regulatory rulemaking and eventually local implementation defined by those rules. The formal CPUC rulemaking process is a complex technical exercise favoring those voices most familiar with the intricacies of the broadband sector and how to engage the CPUC itself.

To ensure that equity is at the forefront of how every broadband infrastructure dollar is spent in the state, a group of philanthropies created a pooled fund to address the immediate, midterm, and long-term needs of digital equity advocates and practitioners in California.

Housed at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, the Digital Equity Pooled Fund—which has a minimum institutional commitment for participation and will grant dollars until December 31, 2024—is a collaboration between multiple funders who are focused on advancing digital equity in California.

The Michelson 20MM Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are founding members and form the steering committee that will guide all aspects of the work including governance (strategy, direction, partnership opportunities), convening, education, and communications.

The effort aims to address:

  • Short-term priorities include the provision of grants to groups who can educate digital equity advocates and city and county officials, bridging knowledge gaps with “how-to” one-pagers and recorded Q&A sessions.
  • Midterm efforts include the development of a technical assistance center to support sustained community engagement at the CPUC on broadband and digital literacy and the establishment of regional and local technical assistance hubs for ongoing legislative, regulatory, and implementation advocacy. The purpose is to build the capacity of rural and urban grassroots organizations to engage on broadband infrastructure and digital equity issues.
  • Long-term efforts aim to formalize a philanthropic digital equity workgroup, fostering philanthropic affinity groups and creating space to educate philanthropy on opportunities to support systemic change.

The first pooled fund grants, available to invited U.S.-based nonprofits doing work in California, went to:

  • The Utility Reform Network (TURN) to implement the “Voice for Broadband Equity Project.” This project will bring technical assistance to BIPOC-led, BIPOC- and low-income-community-serving organizations working to bridge the digital divide.
  • The Center for Accessible Technology (CforAT) to implement the “Digital Equity Technical Assistance Project,” which will provide “office hours” to nonprofit organizations to learn the fundamentals of CPUC practice and identify relevant proceedings and open comment periods.

Foundations precluded from joining the pooled fund are giving directly to organizations whose goals align with pooled-fund priorities. Since digital equity advocates must build relationships with community stakeholders, and with key legislative, administrative, and CPUC staff and leadership, some of this aligned funding is going to NextGen Policy to implement the “Digital Equity Nonprofit Capacity Building and Advocacy Project.” The project will build relationships and capacity among nonprofit partners. The goal is to ensure that these partners have a clear understanding of current policy proposals at the state legislature and their potential impact on local communities. Confident in their own knowledge, partners will then inform policymakers about communities’ broadband needs.

When digital equity legislation becomes California law, guidance for philanthropic and community partners on how to implement policy and evaluate programs will be critical. The pooled funders will continue to build capacity to meet the long-term needs of digital equity advocates around the state.

We appreciate the contributions of Miguel Leon, Director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives, Michelson 20MM Foundation, who worked with us on this article.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

More in this series

These articles and much more in Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help

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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