Washington State Sets Digital Equity Goals
Friday, September 15, 2023
Washington State Sets Digital Equity Goals
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 September 11-15, 2023
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.
The Washington State Broadband Office released its draft Digital Equity Plan in September, giving the public a full 60 days to submit comments and feedback. This wide berth for civic participation reflects the state's vision of ensuring every Washingtonian has affordable broadband and the tools to participate in our digital society. Keep reading for a look at how exactly Washington plans to achieve its vision, and what this means for state residents experiencing the digital divide.
Washington's Vision of Digital Equity
Through extensive public engagement, starting in 2022 and continuing through the summer of 2023, the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) developed a vision for digital equity. The Washington vision for digital equity is:
Everyone in Washington has affordable broadband internet technology as well as the tools and skills needed to participate in our digital society before 2028.
Barriers to Digital Equity
In Washington state, 75.5 percent of the state’s population falls within at least one of the “covered populations,” with racial and ethnic minority populations and rural populations making up the largest covered populations within the state.
In Washington state, 22 percent of residents are over the age of 60. Aging individuals in Washington are predominantly white (97%) and receive their income from Social Security (74%). A majority of aging individuals in Washington are also considered low-income based on the federal poverty rate (86%). Seniors in rural areas also need broadband to access critical healthcare services that may not be available otherwise without having to travel long distances. The ability to video conference medical professionals allows seniors to choose where they live while still having access to the services that they need.
With 73 percent of seniors in Washington on Social Security income, about $568 a month in Washington state, $75 for broadband service can be considered too expensive. While the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) offers a $30 a month subsidy, or up to $75 per eligible household on tribal lands, seniors may have difficulties enrolling in the program, due to a complicated two-step enrollment process, a lack of availability through their ISP, or general unawareness of the program.
Digital skills are essential for participating in today’s digital society through activities such as searching and applying for jobs, accessing benefits, or engaging with friends and family on social networks. While digital skilling programs exist at community anchor institutions within Washington, it may be difficult for some seniors to access services.
Washington state has approximately 14,000 individuals in confinement as of June 30, 2023, with 92 percent in state prison.
Currently, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) does not permit incarcerated individuals access to the internet, as there are concerns about incarcerated individuals using the internet to conduct illegal activity. Correctional institutions determine the resources available for incarcerated individuals to access the outside world, including access to phone calls, emails, or video calls. Consideration is needed for how to scale up access to affordable internet services and devices for incarcerated individuals to stay in communication with friends and family.
For correctional facilities that do have computer labs or institutional libraries available for incarcerated individuals, the devices are frequently outdated, limited in number, only
available at certain times of the day, and highly regulated and surveillance. Incarcerated individuals need access to updated digital devices––and the digital skills training to enable full usage of these devices––to optimize their ability to engage with and become accustomed to the outside world after release.
In Washington, 10 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau uses a set of income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family's total income is less than the poverty threshold for that family size, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. By contrast, the Digital Equity Act's definition is individuals living in households with incomes not exceeding 150 percent of the poverty level.
Many Washingtonians have not been able to take advantage of the ACP because they are unaware of the program, have trouble applying for it, cannot access it because their service provider does not accept the program, or they simply may not qualify for the subsidy based on their income. Washington highlights that ACP is federally funded and that it is uncertain if ACP will be extended once its current funding is exhausted in 2024.
Low-income households in Washington expressed a need for greater awareness of available resources like the ACP, digital navigator programs, and other established initiatives in the state. Awareness is essential for low-income households to utilize digital inclusion assets and resources that are publicly available, and many people are not aware that these resources exist. Additionally, the reliance on smartphones is very common for low-income households and other covered populations that struggle to afford updated computer equipment.
Individuals with Language Barriers
U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that a sizable percentage of Washington residents have limited proficiency in English and speak another language at home. In Washington state, 20 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and about 8 percent of individuals speak English less than very well, according to the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates. That amounts to more than 1.45 million individuals speaking a language other than English at home, and over 547,000 individuals who have limited English language proficiency.
People with language barriers need to access websites and digital services to accomplish everyday tasks, such as paying their internet service bills, staying up to date with banking activities, telehealth, and more. Vital information displayed on digital service platforms should be accessible to individuals with language barriers in frequently
encountered languages, yet that is rarely the case. Developing digital skills is as important as developing English literacy skills and there is an opportunity and need for the two curriculums to be integrated within programs for people with language barriers.
Individuals with Disabilities
Individuals with disabilities make up 13 percent of the population within Washington state. The U.S. Census Bureau defines this as individuals who have difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition, and ambulation. However, a 2012 report from the National Disability Rights Network found that due to accessibility challenges, the disability community is undercounted and misrepresented in the census. National Disability Rights further found that questions related to disabilities––such as chronic health and psychiatric disabilities that impact more than 43 percent of individuals in the U.S.––are not asked about on the census, thus not capturing the true number of Americans living with disabilities.
People living with disabilities have unique challenges to accessing the internet including website and device accessibility, ability to afford services, digital skills, or complex systems and languages. Specific disabilities may require special resources to access the internet, for example, individuals with vision impairment may need screen readers or audio support to receive the information on a screen. However, screen readers may not be available on devices such as cell phones, or websites with photos without descriptive captions. Washingtonians expressed a need for accessibility tools from ISPs as well as affordable assistive devices.
Racial and Ethnic Minorities
In Washington state, 33 percent of residents identify as a racial or ethnic minority. Although other covered populations include racial and ethnic minorities, some racial and ethnic groups have nuanced needs that differ from the other represented populations. Specifically, language barriers may prevent individuals from navigating government websites due to complex language or a lack of translation options. Similarly, some racial and ethnic minorities may have difficulties using government websites due to the spelling of their name. Being able to enter your name without having to modify it for computer systems promotes digital inclusion and can also reduce barriers to accessing services.
Nontraditional Community Anchor Institutions offer opportunities to meet diverse communities where they feel comfortable and frequently visit. For example, across the United States, many racial and ethnic minorities are religious, with high percentages of Black (83%), Latino (74%), Asian (68%) population attending a religious service at least a few times a year, as compared to their white (66%) counterparts. Some faith-based institutions run nonprofits and assist with food distribution, clothing drives, or homework help for kids within the community. Faith-based institutions are well connected, with space and resources to share information, create safe and comfortable spaces for digital skills and digital literacy trainings.
Government agencies need to invest resources into meaningfully engaging with tribal government and residents. Colonialism is a barrier for tribal communities to access economic opportunities and resources that affect their quality of life, such as more job opportunities to address high unemployment rates. To combat the history of government mistrust, relationship building is essential to ensuring that everyone feels that their contributions are valued and empowered to participate in public engagement.
Currently, an estimated 19 percent of the population of Washington lives in a rural area. Rural areas in Washington have low population densities, with seven of 39 counties having population densities below ten people per square mile, making it economically challenging for private ISPs to invest in broadband infrastructure. Additionally, the lack of market competition often contributes to limited broadband options and higher costs for residents. ISPs may have little incentive to invest in infrastructure upgrades or to
extend their services to underserved areas due to a lack of sufficient competition. As a result, many rural communities are underserved or unserved. Local governments, Public Utility Districts, Port Authorities, and municipalities can play a vital role by encouraging competition and facilitating partnerships to expand services in rural areas.
Rural inhabitants need easy access to free public Wi-Fi and digital inclusion assets such as skills training, device lending programs, and digital navigation assistance. In densely populated areas around the state, many individuals and families have access to community anchor institutions that can offer both. However, due to the nature of rural areas being sparsely populated and with stretches of uninhabited land, it is difficult to ensure easily accessible community anchor institutions for each household.
There are 523,000 veterans in Washington state, according to data from the U.S. Census. Veterans are mostly concentrated in western Washington. Veterans––like many of the other covered populations––overlap with other covered populations like low-income, rural, aging, and people living with disabilities. For example, in Washington, there are 217,000 veterans 65 and older and 11,000 veterans living below the federal poverty level. Of the 11,000 below the poverty level, 48 percent have a disability. For veterans, these compounding factors result in complex and unique needs that can exacerbate the digital divide.
Like many other covered populations, veterans need digital skills training to participate in today’s digital society. Veterans have an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, with young veterans, ages 18-24, unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Studies show that young veterans struggle with unemployment due to proximity to their service, meaning that they recently served (recently separated veterans) and are having difficulties adjusting to the civilian workforce. Ensuring veterans have digital skills, is essential to support their integration into civilian work. Additionally, expanding programs like digital navigators and other community-based programming can support veterans through complicated government systems ensuring that they receive the benefits they need.
Youth in Foster Care
WSBO identified an additional underserved population as youth in foster care. Youth in foster care are a particularly underserved and vulnerable population, facing numerous challenges that can hinder their well-being and future prospects. These children are in the temporary customer of the state, specifically the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). There are 10,060 children in foster care in Washington; 2,167 of these children are waiting for adoptive families, as shared by DCYF.
Youth in foster care may lack the necessary digital skills to safely navigate information online, devices, and consistent access to the internet that are crucial for success in education, employment, and daily life. This digital divide places them at a further disadvantage. Additional foster care management services are needed to ensure youth in foster care have the tools they need to access the internet. Device lending programs are also needed to close the digital divide for those in foster care.
Individuals Experience Housing Instability
WSBO also identified individuals experiencing housing instability as an additional underserved population in need of internet services. More than 25,000 individuals are experiencing housing instability in Washington state. Populations are considered to be experiencing housing instability if they are unsheltered, in temporary shelter, or in their vehicle. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Washington state’s population experiencing housing instability has
increased by 10 percent from 2020 to 2022, with the largest population growth happening in Seattle. The population experiencing housing instability intersects with other covered populations including low-income, veterans, foster care youth, and aging populations.
Locations like coffee shops, grocery stores, and libraries offer Wi-Fi that the community can use, but these locations often turn off their public access when the businesses are
closed. For those experiencing housing instability, resources and access to the internet are needed, even after regular business hours.
State Goals for Digital Equity
The WSBO established three goals designed to achieve digital equity:
- Eliminating barriers: Provide Washington state residents with infrastructure, devices, and tools, to maintain reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband service to bridge the digital divide.
- Empowering residents: Provide Washington state residents the information, support, and skills to obtain and cultivate digital knowledge and skills to improve access and reap the benefits of digital inclusion.
- Ensuring sustainability: Establish and build partnerships across Washington state needed to deliver and sustain broadband service and support programs for learning and engaging in civil society.
These goals contextualize the strategies created by the state in an effort to bridge the digital divide in Washington.
Broadband Action Teams Help Inform Digital Equity Needs
One of the most significant efforts that the WSBO has used state funds to help develop are Broadband Action Teams (BATs): The WSBO partnered with Washington State University-Extension to help support existing and stand-up new BATs in the making of the draft Digital Equity Plan. BATs across 39 counties and 11 tribes submitted broadband and/or digital equity Community Action Plans that are helping to inform the Digital Equity Plan. In addition to the 11 tribes that submitted independent Community Action Plans, four tribes partnered with counties in developing a Community Action Plan. In total, 16 tribes participated. BATs consist of a variety of stakeholders including local and tribal government representatives, economic development councils, CAIs, and more.
Implementation Strategy and Key Activities
Strategy 1: Expand broadband availability and increase affordability
Ensuring that broadband infrastructure is available across Washington state is the first step in bridging the digital divide. A critical next step is to create opportunities for services offered over broadband infrastructure to be affordable, so that even after broadband infrastructure has been expanded into neighborhoods, the service can be easily adopted by households and businesses without the cost presenting a barrier for low-income individuals.
Activity: Monitor Washington state Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) investments to ensure alignment with digital equity goals.
- Require BEAD subgrantees to demonstrate how they plan to conduct outreach and engagement with covered populations in service areas as part of their application.
- Convene internet service providers (ISPs), state agencies, and local partners to encourage digital equity coalition building for the BEAD planning process.
- Embed equity into workforce planning efforts related to the BEAD deployment project.
Activity: Support Washington Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) to improve and increase the number of free, public Wi-Fi locations.
- Work with CAIs to update the Washington state Drive-in Wi-Fi Hotspots location finder, crowdsourced statewide database of free Wi-Fi locations, and identify gaps in service locations.
- Identify and improve existing CAI broadband connectivity and expand networks to meet 1 Gbps service standards.
- Discuss opportunities for public and private ISPs to provide free public Wi-Fi for neighborhoods with high need such as areas with a high concentration of low-income households in partnership with local CAIs.
Activity: Leverage partners to help increase enrollment in subsidized broadband service for low-income communities.
- Work with digital navigators, local and tribal governments, and coalitions such as the Broadband Action teams (BATs) to expand outreach and enrollment support for covered populations into programs that subsidize broadband services.
- Launch a statewide outreach campaign in partnership with the Office of Equity focused on the covered populations to raise awareness about programs that subsidize broadband services, such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
- Encourage and partner with ISPs to support the development of low-income service plans that can reduce affordability barriers for low-income residents as outlined in the initial proposal.
Activity: Utilize Washington state Digital Equity Dashboard to identify gaps in broadband services for covered populations.
- Coordinate with state agencies to identify digital equity assets and other data that may be relevant to include on the Digital Equity Dashboard.
- Design a user-centered digital equity dashboard with story maps that help track broadband access metrics alongside geographic data on covered populations for whom data is available across the state.
- Develop crowdsourced mapping locations of digital equity-related events and projects over time.
- Utilize dashboard to help share progress towards digital equity goals and to provide open data in a centralized location for the public.
Activity: Solicit innovative solutions that can increase broadband affordability and adoption among hard-to-reach covered populations or subgroups.
- Work with community organizations to assess which covered populations or subgroups within covered populations may be missing digital inclusion opportunities using qualitative and quantitative data from sources such as public engagement findings and U.S. Census data on internet subscription rates in Washington state.
- Enlist existing community partners to help with serving hard-to-reach covered populations.
- Co-create and pilot solutions with partners that can effectively increase affordability and adoption among the hard-to-reach covered populations.
Broadband availability and affordability will be measured by a myriad of different data sources including: the number of households with internet subscriptions according to the U.S. Census and the number of Washington residents who are eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program according to income data from the U.S. Census compared to number of residents enrolled in the program. Additionally, the Washington state BEAD Five-year Action plan will provide resources including additional data and maps to identify where the unserved and underserved populations are located allowing for the more focused digital equity strategies to address their needs.
Strategy 2: Implement innovative approaches to expand options for device availability and affordability
Currently, a high percentage of low-income households cannot access the digital world due to a lack of digital devices. Barriers such as cost and a lack of accessible public resources that offer digital device lending programs or computer labs can result in lower digital literacy rates. The state of Washington is prioritizing access and affordability of digital devices for Washingtonians.
Activity: Leverage existing partnerships to develop innovative or proven programs like statewide device recycling programs to increase affordability.
- Build upon the lessons learned from the Take it Back Network Coalition and other recycling programs to explore expanding or creating a statewide device-recycling program with organizations such as private retailers, repair shops, and government organizations.
- Partner with libraries to create locations to drop off devices for recycling and repair.
- Partner with schools and colleges to create apprenticeships that can offer local repairs within local communities.
Activity: Partner with ISPs, CAIs, and device distributors to co-develop awareness and marketing campaigns to promote low-cost broadband service plans, mobile network/hotspots, and free or low-cost device programs.
- Utilize Digital Inclusion Asset Map to locate mobile networks and hotspot distribution programs.
- Understand utilization of the programs among the covered populations and opportunities for the WSBO, digital navigators, and other trusted messengers to support awareness of where both free network access and digital devices are available, including statewide and focused campaigns.
- Expand on pre-existing hotspot distribution programs, increasing distribution locations in areas with in high covered population densities, such as school districts, rural areas, or senior and youth centers.
Activity: Increase awareness and availability of programs that offer free or low-cost devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and laptops.
- Utilize Digital Inclusion Asset Map to locate device lending programs in Washington state.
- Understand utilization of the programs among the covered populations and opportunities for the WSBO, digital navigators and other trusted messengers to support awareness, including statewide and focused campaigns.
- Expand on pre-existing device lending programs, increasing lending locations in areas with high covered population densities, such as school districts, rural areas, or senior centers.
Device availability and affordability will be measured by comparing the baseline of the number of households with digital devices currently in Washington to that same data point in years to come as the strategies delineated in this chapter are implemented throughout the state. Data for the number of households without digital devices will be collected by covered populations where possible to address the disparities associated with certain populations. Specific geographic regions with a higher percentage of covered populations overlapping with unserved and or underserved locations can also be examined to measure progress over time as more households should be gaining access to broadband internet, which will likely also lead to an increase in device ownership.
Strategy 3: Consolidate practices that promote online accessibility and inclusivity
Advocating for inclusive online experiences allows for all Washingtonians the ability to access and participate in digital society. Covered populations, such as those that identified with having a language barrier, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as those living with a disability, expressed the need for a more equitable online experience, including more language translation services, culturally sensitive web designs, and user-friendly accessibility features.
Activity: Partner with trusted messenger programs and organizations to share information about digital assistance and online accessibility with covered populations.
- Identify and strengthen regional trusted messenger organizations and programs such as digital navigators, Broadband Action Teams (BAT), tribes, counties, and coalitions focused on digital equity to expand awareness of online accessibility resources.
- Identify and invest in programs that service covered populations, but do not yet provide digital skill and accessibility training, to expand services to include digital navigation or digital skill building.
- Host a digital inclusion conference to promote the sharing of good practices related to online accessibility.
Measuring Success for Online Accessibility and Inclusivity
To measure sustainability, the WSBO can encourage feedback from covered populations and community partners to understand the user experience on government websites. This could include receiving feedback through formal channels such as surveys on the webpage, opportunities to leave feedback via social media or email, and direct feedback provided by Digital Navigator Program participants. Additionally, the WSBO will work with partners to co-create and promote shared good practices related to the accessibility of online resources.
Strategy 4: Provide services that promote digital literacy
As individuals connect to the Internet through the expansion of broadband services across Washington, digital literacy skills will become essential in providing the knowledge to navigate the digital world safely and comfortably. Several strategies implemented by the state of Washington assist with expanding digital literacy trainings.
Activity: Build upon lessons learned through the Washington State Digital Navigator Program to expand digital literacy programs designed to address the unique needs of covered populations.
- Continue to build on the success of programs as digital navigators by expanding partnerships with CAIs to embed the digital navigator curriculum into programs that may not be digitally focused but serve covered populations.
- Engage state agencies that support covered populations to adopt digital navigator programs.
- Expand digital literacy programs to increase the participation of Washington residents and businesses that are served.
Activity: Leverage the Digital Navigator Program to expand community partnerships that provide increased knowledge and skills enabling covered populations to participate in changing workforce needs.
- Work with state partners to identify digital skill gaps within the public and private sectors in Washington state.
- Coordinate with educational institutions, workforce boards and coalitions to expand training programs to upskill the workforce.
- Encourage public and private institutions to provide increased access to on-the-job digital skill training programming and resources.
Activity: Build on existing partnerships with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to implement innovative and proven approaches to expand student and family involvement in digital literacy services.
- Identify and understand the needs of existing digital inclusion and literacy programs administered by the OSPI.
- Partner with the OSPI, community organizations, and school districts to optimize existing funding opportunities and programming, such as by uplifting the OSPI’s Digital Inclusion Grants by recommending increased outreach and strengthened direct grant coordination and support to school districts with technology capacity limitations.
- Provide support to OSPI on aligning Digital Equity and Inclusion Grant program objectives with overall state digital equity goals related to educational outcomes and opportunities for outreach.
Measuring Success for Digital Literacy
To measure digital literacy, various methods and tools can be used. Surveys and questionnaires can be provided to students at digital literacy trainings and workshops to self-report their digital skills, knowledge, attitudes, and general understanding of the material discussed. Evaluation tests can also assess digital skills and knowledge in a standardized manner. Programs across the state may utilize standardized assessment tools to create a baseline and measure the success of their programs upon participants’ completion. For a statewide measure of success, the WSBO will keep track of the number of covered populations enrolling in programming under their purview, using the enrollment numbers from their 2023 contracts with digital navigators as a baseline.
Strategy 5: Promote practices and leverage tools to ensure online privacy and security
Feeling protected and safe online is essential to encouraging the covered populations to engage in digital society. Services such as telehealth, banking, online purchasing, and connecting with family members on social media are basic activities yet can become risky if the user does not have the skills or knowledge to maintain safety online.
Activity: Support the Statewide Cybersecurity Strategy to protect the data and privacy of covered populations online.
- Collaborate with the Washington State Office of Cybersecurity to spread awareness of cybersecurity standards and require that subgrantee projects have cybersecurity risk management plans, as required by the BEAD Notice of Funding.
- Coordinate a cybersecurity best practices campaign for Washington residents, including tools and resources such as how to recognize and report online scams, free antivirus software and other security resources.
- Recommend the inclusion of cybersecurity tools within digital navigator training.
Activity: Partner with internet service providers (ISPs) to promote cyber security standards.
- Advocate for ISPs to increase cybersecurity standards including ensuring that covered populations are protected online through threat monitoring, firewall features, and reporting suspicious activity across their networks.
- Encourage ISPs to share user-friendly, multilingual, and accessible information and best practices for protecting data and privacy online with customers.
Activity: Leverage the Digital Navigator Program to conduct outreach and engagement, provide in-person trainings, and tools and educational resources related to online privacy and cybersecurity.
- Equip digital navigators with resources including a standardized cybersecurity curriculum, best practices for online privacy, and cyber security training tools.
- Utilize digital navigators to serve as messengers and support for covered populations related to cyber security.
- Provide resources to other state agencies and community-based organizations that may provide digital navigator-related services.
Measuring Success for Online Privacy and Cybersecurity
WSBO will continue to serve as a close partner to the Washington State Office of Cybersecurity as well as the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, where cyber incidents are reported. The WSBO can explore gathering information from digital navigators as well as ISPs to understand if and how information related to online privacy and cybersecurity is being distributed and opportunities to improve communication to reach covered populations.
Washington Wants to Hear From You
The public comment period for Washington's draft Digital Equity Plan will close on October 31, 2023. The state is allowing 60 days for the public to review its plan and provide feedback. Comments can be sent to InternetforAll@Commerce.wa.gov.
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ICYMI from Benton
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Sept 11-17––Digital Connectivity and Lifeline Awareness Week (FCC)
Sept 19––Northeast Digital Equity Summit
Sept 19––The Economics of Universal Service Fund Reform (INCOMPAS)
Sept 20––FTC Nominations Hearing (Senate Commerce Committee)
Sept 21––September 2023 Open FCC Meeting (FCC)
Sept 21––Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting (Department of Commerce)
Sept 27-28––Oregon Infrastructure Summit (Business Oregon)
Sept 28––IP3 Awards 2023 (Public Knowledge)
Oct 2-6––Digital Inclusion Week 2023 (NDIA)
Oct 2––All Together For Digital Inclusion - Stakeholder Summit 2023 (Digital Empowerment Community of Austin)
Oct 12-13––Digital Inclusion Research Forum (Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Kansas City)
Oct 12-13––FCC Tribal Workshop at Indian Island, Maine (FCC)
Oct 24––41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture & Awards Breakfast (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)
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