A Proposal to Create the Foundation for Digital Equity

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, September 26, 2022

Digital Beat

A Proposal to Create the Foundation for Digital Equity

On September 15, U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) in introducing the Digital Equity Foundation Act of 2022. The bill would establish a nonprofit foundation to leverage public and private investments to make progress closing the divides on digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy. As the bill's sponsors note, Congressionally-established nonprofit foundations have had great success in supporting the missions of various government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the National Park Service, and provide a mechanism to leverage public-private partnerships and support innovation. Here we look at the major provisions of the bill. 

I. The Foundation for Digital Equity

Within six months of enactment of this legislation, the Secretary of Commerce will establish a nonprofit corporation called the Foundation for Digital Equity. The foundation's mission has four elements:

  1. Supplement the work of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in promoting the benefits of technological developments in the U.S. and of high-capacity, affordable broadband connectivity;
  2. Raise, leverage, or match funding from other entities, including philanthropic organizations, the private sector, and state and local governments, to promote digital literacy, digital inclusion, and digital equity for communities with low rates of adoption of broadband;
  3. Develop programs and partnerships to:
    • spur greater rates of broadband adoption, 
    • collaborate with state, local, and Tribal governments, minority-serving institutions, other anchor institutions, and stakeholders in the communications, education, business, and technology fields,
    • publicize and incentivize the adoption of evidence-based programs,
    • convene organizations and partnerships with related goals and interests to establish problem-solving processes,
    • strengthen and share best practices relating to projects promoting digital inclusion, digital literacy, and digital equity; and regional economic development,
    • support job creation and workforce development, and
    • support the goals of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. 
  4. Promote equitable access to, and the adoption of, broadband technologies and digital applications that support accessibility, telehealth, distance learning, and online access to governmental benefits and services, including by preventing, detecting, and remedying digital discrimination.

The foundation is authorized to participate in a range of activities including:

  1. Conducting and supporting studies, competitions and projects;
  2. Awarding digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy grants; 
  3. Working with the Department of Commerce and FCC to promote digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy;
  4. Supporting training programs for researchers, scientists, and other relevant personnel at the Department of Commerce, the FCC, and institutions of higher education to help promote digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy;
  5. Engaging stakeholders; 
  6. Establishing for-profit subsidiaries to stimulate economic development and attract for-profit investment partners;
  7. Carrying supplemental programs such as:
    • conducting and supporting forums, meetings, conferences, courses, and training programs;
    • supporting and encouraging the understanding and development of a) data collection that provides clarity with respect to inequities and community needs in order to promote digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy and b) policies that make regulation more effective and efficient by leveraging the data collection efforts; and
    • writing, editing, printing, publishing, and selling books and other materials relating to efforts carried out by the foundation, the Department of Commerce, or the FCC.
  8. Developing a publicly available evaluation methodology to be used as part of any program supported by the foundation. The methodology will include:
    • both qualitative and quantitative metrics, and
    • periodic third party evaluation of the programs and other activities of the foundation.
  9. Communicating awareness of funding opportunities among community-based organizations that serve covered populations and promoting the work of grant and fellowship recipients, the success of the foundation, and opportunities for partnership with the foundation; and
  10. Supplementing Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants if there are not adequate appropriations to support such a grant.

II. Governance

Although created by Congress, the foundation will not be an agency of any government. Instead, the foundation will be a 501(c) nonprofit (meaning that donors will not be able to write off any donations to the foundation).

The legislation outlines a process for establishing a permanent Digital Equity Foundation and begins with the creation of a temporary Committee for the Establishment of the Foundation for Digital Equity. If the bill becomes law, the Secretary of Commerce would have 90 days to establish the committee comprised of five, uncompensated members appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, the Director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development. At least three members must have "broad and general experience" with digital equity, digital inclusion, or digital literacy. One member must have experience working with private nonprofit organizations.

The committee will serve as the incorporators of the Digital Equity Foundation and will provide for its initial operation including facilities, equipment, and staff. The committee will also appoint initial voting members of the foundation's board of directors. The committee has just six months to complete its work.

The foundation will be governed by an uncompensated board of directors. The Secretary of Commerce, the Director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development will serve as ex officio, non-voting members of the board. As noted above, the initial slate of voting members of the foundation's board will be picked by the Committee for the Establishment of the Foundation for Digital Equity (which was appointed by ex officio members of the board). Half of the initial voting members of the board will serve for four years and the remaining half will serve for five years. (Afterwards, terms will be five years for all members.) The board will pick and approve any vacancies on the board. 

"Covered Populations" is a term from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act meaning individuals who live in low-income households, aging individuals, incarcerated individuals, 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.

The board is to reflect a broad cross-section of stakeholders from academia, industry, nonprofit and civil rights organizations, community-based practitioners of efforts to promote digital inclusion, state or local governments, local school districts and libraries, other community anchor institutions, and the philanthropic community. Members of the board will have experience in: 

  • promoting digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy,
  • the technology sector,
  • the telecommunications and broadband sector,
  • working with "covered populations," and 
  • foundation operations.

The legislation would also require that the board represent diverse regions, sectors, and covered populations.

The board will:

  • provide overall direction for the foundation and set priorities;
  • appoint, guide and evaluate the performance of the foundation's executive director; and
  • solicit and accept funds, gifts, grants, devises, or bequests of real or personal property to the foundation, including from private entities.

III. Community Advisory Committee

Within its first three months, the board of the foundation will convene an advisory committee comprised of community members from covered populations and experts with experience providing essential products and services to covered populations. Members are to represent diverse regions, sectors, and communities, including:

  • digital inclusion practitioners,
  • rural-focused programs,
  • members of Indigenous communities,
  • civil rights advocates,
  • consumer advocates,
  • libraries,
  • school systems or education technology specialists,
  • accessibility advocates or experts,
  • retired or older individuals,
  • private sector internet service providers, and 
  • other relevant groups with experience addressing the access, adoption, and affordability of broadband services.

Not later than two years after the date on which the foundation is established and annually after that, the community advisory committee will make recommendations to the board. 

IV. Strategic Planning and Reporting

Within one year of enactment of this legislation, the foundation will submit to Congress a strategic plan that incorporates the input of the community advisory committee and contains a description of the foundation's:

  • initial focus areas and primary purposes for its activities in the next two years;
  • efforts to be transparent in its grant-making and priority-setting processes;
  • financial goals and benchmarks for the next ten years; and 
  • work to complement investments made by the Department of Commerce and the FCC.

In addition, the foundation will report to Congress within the first year and every two years thereafter on:

  • Its activities and progress in furthering its mission,
  • the source and use of all funds, and
  • grant decisions.

Every five years, the Comptroller General of the United States (the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office [GAO]) will submit a report to Congress including an evaluation of the foundation's efforts to fulfill its mission and recommendations on how to improve the foundation. Finally, the foundation will provide the GAO with annual audits on the condition of the foundation.

V. Funding

The legislation includes authorization of appropriations for the foundation but does not stipulate how much funding the foundation will receive. For fiscal year 2023 (which begins October 1, 2022, if you're scoring at home), the Secretary of Commerce will be appropriated funds to establish the Committee for the Establishment of the Foundation for Digital Equity. In fiscal year 2024, the foundation would receive funds to carry out its activities. In fiscal year 2025 and "each fiscal year thereafter," the foundation would receive funds for administrative and operational costs.

What Next

The bicameral legislation has been endorsed by Public Knowledge, Open Technology Institute at New America, The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, American Library Association, Center for Rural Strategies, United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, Common Cause, National Consumer Law Center, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Common Sense, and NextGen California.

This week, Congress is expected to consider stopgap funding legislation needed by the end of September to avoid a partial government shutdown. Also expiring this month is the FCC's authority to conduct spectrum auctions. The stopgap funding legislation might extend the FCC's auction authority through the end of the year or it could include the Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022 (H.R. 7624), which the House of Representatives approved back in July. The foundation's appropriations could be tied to spectrum auction proceeds. All to say—a path to the enactment of the Digital Equity Foundation Act is very complicated. We may get more clarity this week, when the stopgap funding expires at the end of 2022, or who knows when. 

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

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

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