States Elevate Digital Equity to Accelerate Broadband Adoption

By Robert Williams, Stateside Associates, and Robin Colwell, Senior Vice President, BGR Group

Among the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, is a groundbreaking investment in digital inclusion, the Digital Equity Act. “Digital equity” is defined in the statute 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.” Barriers to full participation can include the price of broadband or a lack of digital skills.

The Digital Equity Act established three grant programs worth a total of $2.75 billion to fund digital inclusion, defined as “the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals in the United States have access to, and the use of, affordable information and communications strategies,” including reliable fixed wireless internet service, internet-enabled devices, access to digital literacy training, technical support, and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency and full participation.

These grant programs, which are meant to be sequenced, will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA):

  • The State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program includes $60 million in formula funding for states and territories to develop their own digital equity plans, which are required to be eligible for capacity grants.
  • The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program includes $1.44 billion in formula funding over five years for states and territories to implement their digital equity plans.
  • And the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, meant to supplement existing state activities, includes $1.25 billion in discretionary funding over five years for entities including states, tribal governments, nonprofits, community anchor institutions, local educational agencies, and workforce development organizations. This program will be initiated after implementation grants from the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program start being awarded.

The State Digital Equity Planning and Capacity Grants will be allocated to the states by a formula that will take into account factors including the total state population, the number of individuals in the state who are members of covered populations specified as priorities in the law, and the comparative levels of broadband availability and adoption in the state.

States will be able to start the first step of the process – applying for digital equity plan development grants – when NTIA issues its Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) sometime in mid-May. Applications must be submitted no later than 60 days after the NOFO is released, so time will be of the essence. Accordingly, many states are already taking action to prepare.

State Action

Since the beginning of 2021, OregonVirginia, and Washington have enacted legislation calling for the creation of a state digital equity plan. The California General Assembly is currently considering a bill to do the same.

In other states, governors have taken executive action to prepare their states to receive federal funding. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) issued an executive order in November requiring state agencies to develop a digital equity plan. In New York, as part of her 2022 State of the State, Governor Kathy Hochul (D) announced a $1 billion ConnectALL Initiative, which will include the development of a statewide plan. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) established the first state office dedicated to digital inclusion, the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, in July 2021.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), a coalition of community groups, nonprofits, and government agencies, offers a number of resources to state policymakers including a white paper that outlines recommendations for the form and function of state digital equity offices. NDIA also rates each states on their efforts to address digital equity in their State Digital Equity Scorecard. The Scorecard evaluates the extent to which each state is addressing five primary indicators: data on digital skill needs, a comprehensive plan to address digital skill gaps, online digital skills training, incumbent worker training funds, technology apprenticeships, and state broadband plans.

Local Action

Local governments can play an important role in bridging the digital divide. Despite recent efforts to expand access to broadband, adoption rates can vary widely based on factors including income, race, rural population, and education. Research suggests that policymakers can increase adoption through digital equity initiatives.

Dozens of cities have developed their own digital equity plans to increase broadband affordability and digital literacy training. The National League of Cities (NLC) released a Digital Equity Playbook to help city leaders create a plan for reaching their underserved residents. NDIA maintains an inventory of Digital Inclusion Trailblazers recognizing local governments that have implemented best-practice policies.

Stateside is partnering with BGR Group to help organizations navigate digital equity funds and other broadband grants as they flow from federal agencies to state and local governments. 

Learn More About Stateside’s Infrastructure Funding Service Here

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