Congress strives for 'digital equity' in broadband bill
The $65 billion broadband bill now inching its way through the US Senate as part of the bipartisan infrastructure package would represent the country's most significant effort to tackle the digital divide at a national level. In addition to being a massive infusion of cash, it also seeks to prioritize an equitable path toward a universally connected future.
One element of the bill – the Digital Equity Act – reserves $1.3 billion for state-level planning and grant programs to ensure that broadband is being deployed equitably for traditionally underserved groups, and to fund digital literacy programs.
According to the existing legislative text, to be eligible for those grants, states will be required to establish a State Digital Equity Plan, outlining barriers to broadband for marginalized groups, plans for documenting and promoting access to Internet services and digital literacy resources, and a description of how the state will work with local stakeholders to achieve its objectives.
In addition to the Digital Equity Act, the broadband bill also contains stipulations on affordability, essentially extending and altering the FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit. The new bill would change the name to the Affordable Connectivity Program and reduce the benefit to $30 per month, from $50 for the EBB.
It also appears to tackle issues with the FCC's program, which has reportedly allowed for attempts at upselling from some ISPs claiming only certain plans are eligible.
Under the Affordable Connectivity Program, however, the current text of the broadband bill stipulates that participating providers "shall allow an eligible household to apply the affordable connectivity benefit to any internet service offering of the participating provider at the same terms available to households that are not eligible households."
One other area the bill addresses is "digital discrimination," or what advocacy groups like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) have called "digital redlining" – where wealthier areas get access to higher-speed technologies and lower-income communities get left behind. The new law would require the FCC to "adopt final rules to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service" within two years.
In an email to Broadband World News, Amy Huffman, policy director at NDIA said the organization is thrilled with the inclusion of the Digital Equity Act, noting that it will mean a "sizable down payment in closing barriers that prevent residents from accessing the internet."
"NDIA is pleased to see the bill addresses and prohibits digital discrimination, something we discovered in our work in Cleveland," she added. "We encourage Congress to pass the bill as quickly as possible so communities can begin the hard work of building digital equity ecosystems to close the digital divide."
Among the groups advocating for equitable broadband deployment is the National Urban League, which released the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion earlier this year in an effort to influence federal legislation. The plan called for deploying networks everywhere, overcoming the broadband adoption gap, addressing digital literacy issues and more.
"One can quibble at the edges, but when you look at the overall package, I think we will look back on this and say we took a lot of steps forward for digital equity and inclusion," said Blair Levin, former US government official and current Brookings resident fellow, and one of the authors of the Lewis Latimer Plan, in an interview with Broadband World News.
One such quibble comes from Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who argues that in defining broadband as 100/20 Mbit/s, the bill is likely to leave some communities behind.
"By defining internet access as the ability to get 100/20 Mbps service, the draft language allows cable monopolies to argue that anyone with access to ancient, insufficient internet access does not need federal money to build new infrastructure," writes Falcon. "Copper-DSL-only areas, and areas entirely without broadband, will likely take the lion’s share of the $40 billion made available ... This will lead to an absurd result: people on inferior, too-expensive cable services will be seen as equally served as their neighbors who will get federally funded fiber."
Still, according to Levin, who oversaw the creation of the National Broadband Plan under President Barack Obama, it can't be overstated how much the COVID-19 pandemic has moved the needle on the digital divide in the US.
"If this bill does not pass, already in this year of 2021, Congress has made the largest investment in broadband, both on the supply side, that is to say funding deployments, and the demand side, that is to say funding low-income people who can't afford it," says Levin.
"If nothing else happens, they've already done that. And they're now about to do a lot more. That is a very big moment."
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading
Here's where you can find episode links for 'The Divide,' Light Reading's podcast series featuring conversations with broadband providers and policymakers working to close the digital divide.
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