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How Can States Plan for the Long Game of Digital Equity?

With billions of broadband infrastructure dollars at stake, states have to ensure that digital equity programs are sustainable long after federal money has been spent. Here’s how they can do it.

The pandemic made links between technological inequities and educational outcomes impossible to ignore.
(Tech Goes Home)
The $65 billion included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is intended to finally close a technology gap identified more than three decades ago, giving “every American” access to affordable, high-speed Internet.

“Broadband Internet is the new electricity,” the White House said in making the case for a historic investment in the technology. “It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care and to stay connected.”

Almost two-thirds of the BIL broadband dollars will go to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). States have until July 18 to send NTIA a letter of intent to participate in the program.

Each state will receive at least $100 million from BEAD, but first it must provide a five-year plan to NTIA. They can request $5 million in planning funds when they submit their letter of intent or wait as late as Aug. 15 to ask for them. Once funds are received, states have 270 days to develop their plans.

The BEAD timeline overlaps with another NTIA program, the Digital Equity Act (DEA). The DEA, passed as part of the BIL, is intended to spur the achievement of digital equity. It includes $60 million in grants to help states create five-year digital equity plans.

The size of DEA planning grants is based on a formula involving state population, the number of residents in populations most likely to lack access and the comparative lack of availability of broadband. Amounts range from around $500,000 to $4 million (California’s share).

The deadline for application is July 12. Funds will be available in September 2022, and states have 12 months to make plans.

There’s an important reason to take a hard look at these programs and timelines: The BEAD five-year plan must incorporate the DEA five-year plan. Along the way, states need to figure out how to make their programs sustainable once the federal dollars stop flowing, so citizens can rely on broadband indefinitely into the future.

Long-Term Equity and the Hard Political Challenge

Digital equity is a relatively young field, says Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, president of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit dedicated to digital equity. On top of that, the actors and stakeholders come from fields that range from social services, community organizations, education and local government to housing and health care.
Marconi Society President Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Now is the time for planners to think about longevity for their programs. "Once these programs are up and running and you're doing reporting, trying to scale up, it's going to be harder — it might not feel like you have the time, but it's only going to get worse."
“Recognizing the complexity of that environment is really key,” she says. It might sound simple to ask states for a broadband plan that includes both infrastructure and equity, she says, but sorting out what that really entails can be overwhelming. (The Marconi Society is hosting a 2030 Digital Equity Project, a collaborative effort to work out integrated approaches to this challenge.)

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) says equity exists when “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.” This involves more than high-speed connections and devices.

Planners should think about ways that ongoing support for equity can come from other budget line items, says Schartman-Cycyk. If more citizens have the access and skills to utilize government services online, that efficiency can reduce costs. Governments can also look at ways that an upgraded digital environment could help them consolidate the services they offer.

“People will need to figure out how to offset income from other areas to put into equity, and that’s going to be a hard political challenge,” says Schartman-Cycyk. It would be smart to lay the groundwork now, well before the need to shift funds becomes urgent, she says. “By the time the money starts flowing, it's a pretty short duration until we get to the part where we need to have that sustainability plan.”
Community Tech Network.jpg
Participants in a program from the Community Tech Network. Digital inequities can prevent older Americans from accessing vital services, including telehealth, or contact with friends and family.

Systemic Change, Driven by Humans

It would be a shame if a huge federal investment creates short-term benefits, but not systemic change, says Angela Siefer, NDIA’s executive director. NDIA publishes a Digital Inclusion Start-Up Manual that draws on the work of its affiliates, a resource than can inform equity planning.

One way to drive sustained investment is to engage stakeholders who stand to benefit if more digitally literate people are online, says Siefer. The sectors affected include government, health care, business, finance, retail and education, among others. All of these have reasons to support equity programs on a continuing basis.

For example, workforce programs could be more successful if citizens knew how to use the Internet to fill out a job application, because an increasing number of jobs require some level of digital skill. “Some of the funding sources that are about workforce can be used to provide digital skills training, to make sure folks have Internet at home and the right device,” says Siefer.

During the pandemic, providing Internet access became a form of emergency response, but the rush to help made it clear that the fastest solution is not always the best solution. In some cases, expensive hot spots were never turned on because citizens who received them didn’t trust something that came from the government. But the same hot spots worked well for persons with housing insecurity.

“One of the biggest things we learned was that you have to have humans involved in digital equity work, because it's not a technology problem by itself,” says Siefer. “Having those humans involved is a sustainability question because humans are expensive.”

Expensive or not, people will be needed to help users in traditionally marginalized groups stay up to date with constantly evolving technology and security issues. If plans don’t include a means to keep them updated, safe, and able to make the most of digital resources, Siefer says, “we’re going to lose.”

Building Sustainable Partnerships

Barriers and needs vary from community to community, and coalitions and partnerships are the only way for planners to identify local realities, says Karen Mossberger, director of the Center on Technology, Data and Society at Arizona State University (ASU).

“Local governments need to reach out to schools, businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and to libraries,” she says. In addition to providing insight into the best targets for investments, coalitions built around digital equity create a community of interest that can help sustain support over time.

Digital inclusion can be incorporated into existing public- and private-sector programs, to their benefit. This, in turn, opens the door to corporate donations or volunteer support from community groups. “Digital inclusion doesn’t have to be a standalone program, with separate funding,” says Mossberger.

Parents and school organizations are important to sustaining equity programs. During the pandemic, many parents discovered they didn’t understand what their children were doing with technology. They found themselves unable to help their children with their work, or even supervise it effectively. Schools can help parents catch up, and host other kinds of digital skills training for their communities.

Planners also need to engage with libraries, which have played critical roles in developing digital literacy among demographics important to BEAD, offering service such as training, small business support and coding certification.

Cooperation can also be fostered across special districts that don’t share the same budgets. “Government administrations can be a barrier, but they don’t have to be,” says Mossberger. “There can be partnerships that work really well.”

In the fall, ASU and the Marconi Society will launch the pilot for an online certificate program in digital inclusion leadership.
girls holding signs that read #DigitalEquityIs
Participants in digital citizenship program from the City of Seattle. (City of Seattle Community Tech)

Seattle’s Blended Approach to Digital Equity

Some communities have already managed to sustain support for digital equity. Seattle has integrated it into other service delivery work, according to David Keyes, the city’s digital equity manager.

“There’s a recognition that digital inclusion supports telecommuting and saving roads,” he says. “It supports getting information about public benefits out to residents, it enables us to distribute disaster response or preparedness information, it helps build stronger neighborhoods.”

Incorporating digital inclusion in the city’s mission has meant that it has been folded into other funding streams, from senior programs and community development block grants to English language learning and workforce preparation. Funds may come to Keyes’ department or be allocated through others. A cross-departmental “Internet for all” working group provides a channel for technical assistance and sharing best practices.

The city has had a matching fund grant program for the past 24 years, helping community-based organizations and anchor institutions respond to the needs of citizens. Longer-term investments in skills programs create a supply of graduates who can train others.

The placement of equity programs within government is likely to vary. What matters most, Keyes believes, is interdepartmental participation.

“The office of equity could be in different places,” he says. “It’s whoever has the strongest capacity to take a leadership role — you also want to think about positioning planning so that it continues in place across administrations and councils.”
In partnership with Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, Tech Goes Home provides digital skills training and courses for local micro entrepreneurs.
(Tech Goes Home)

Massachusetts Emphasizes Training

While the need to connect rural areas remains strong, the vast majority of people who don’t have Internet access live in urban areas — more than 90 percent in Massachusetts, according to Dan Noyes, co-CEO of Tech Goes Home, a digital equity nonprofit based in the eastern part of the state.

The biggest barrier to overcome in these areas is not affordability, but support for training that can help residents participate in a digital economy. At a time when there are unfilled tech jobs, he says, the unemployment rate for adults in his programs is 35 percent.

For years, Tech Goes Home was funded almost entirely by the city of Boston. Recognizing that these funds did not match the scale of the equity problem, it developed a plan that included three major goals: sustainability, growth and efficacy.

The plan enabled the group to diversify its funding sources; today, the city provides only a quarter of its funding. The remaining funds come from corporations, foundations and individual donors, in similar proportions from each source.

The organization works with homeless shelters, schools and community centers to deliver training courses based on the specific needs of the people in the room. All participants receive a device, most often a Chromebook.

Tech Goes Home emphasizes evaluation and data collection from learners and instructors, raw material for reports that show the value of its work to community members. “The one universal thread that goes through all of our funders is that they want to see impact,” he says. “If you can show that, you're likely to have success.”

Making a Case for the Long Game

Not everyone sees the economic benefits of digital equity as clearly as they saw how electricity could change lives, says Siefer. But that doesn’t change the fact that the more digitally savvy citizens the U.S. has, the better it will be able to compete with other countries. Emphasizing this is one way to nurture ongoing bipartisan support for equity.
National Digital Inclusion Alliance
NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer: "Equity is a people problem, not just a technology problem. You can't expect that you build it and they will come."
BIL investments will create an unprecedented chance to evaluate the return on investments in equity programs, says Samantha Schartman-Cycyk.

“Use the opportunity to create really strong evaluation plans where you can calculate fiscal returns or benefits from the programs that you're creating,” she suggests. “Then use that as a leverage point to say, ‘This is where it needs to go into the budget long term.’”

“If we can do that, we will literally change the field. It's been a long history of stops and starts, but sustainability is what's going to change the outcome of this work.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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