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Digital Equity: The Softer Side of the Biden Infrastructure Plan

Digital equity advocates, state broadband offices and local government staffers are encouraged by the president’s emphasis on their work, but what do they need at the federal level to fully solve this challenge?

President Joe Biden looking into the camera while speaking.
President Joe Biden
Shutterstock/archna nautiyal
President Biden’s recently announced infrastructure proposal calls for a massive, unprecedented investment aimed at connecting all Americans to the Internet, one that has led to some digital equity experts calling it a potential game changer for their work.

Dubbed the American Jobs Plan, White House verbiage for the proposal lists high-speed broadband alongside essential utilities, noting some of its top priorities as delivering “clean drinking water, a renewed electric grid, and high-speed broadband to all Americans.” Essentially, electricity and water have long been considered vital utilities; now, the country’s leadership is grouping Internet with them. In the wake of the proposal, Government Technology spoke with many advocates and public servants working on digital equity, asking one question as a starting point: what does Biden’s plan need to do to fully address digital equity and Internet access in the United States?

Their answers were substantive and varied.

AVAILABILITY IS GOOD, ADOPTION IS BETTER


Angela Seifer is the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s seen a wave of new support for her organization’s work, both in terms of staff and funding.

The reason for this surge is relatively simple: when the pandemic forced people to stay home, people got a tangible example of the importance of having a reliable connection to the Internet as a sole access point for work, education and even health care.

With this in mind, Seifer’s wishes for the Biden plan have less to do with the physical aspects of connecting to the Internet, and more to do with ensuring people can and do actually use it. This means making devices available, making service affordable and making sure potential new users are educated on everything from how to set up an email address to why they need one at all.

“My wish list is we can get as much attention on the adoption issue as we have on the availability issue,” Seifer said. “That means not only having money to do the digital inclusion work, but having support for the building of those ecosystems. What we’re actually talking about is systems change.”

In short, one question Seifer hopes remains central for the Biden proposal is, does broadband availability even matter if people aren’t using it in meaningful ways?

Her suggestion to address this is to invest in trusted organizations and groups that are already active in communities, doing digital equity work. In short, a federal effort could create a social system to support local education around the use of technology. It’s a big wish — which, to be fair, was part of the question posed — and it’s also a wish that Seifer doesn’t know the exact right way to realize, given the complex challenges inherent to setting up a national system to support localized work.

Another key to adoption, of course, is pricing, and that means pricing both in terms of market-rate and low-income affordability.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, and he too has seen a change for the better of late in terms of support for digital inclusion. Mitchell echoed Seifer in wishing the federal plan spends money on digital skills training aimed at effective use of the Internet. In addition, he is hoping for a push to improve available data around broadband availability, providing sharper information to guide infrastructure investments.

Due to a series of decisions made by the FCC in recent years, determining where broadband is — or isn’t — is generally left to telecommunications companies. Improving Internet access is, essentially, left to private companies who generate profit from providing Internet access. At present, these companies tell the government where they are providing sufficient service, and there is almost no mechanism for verification.

Mitchell wants to see the federal government act to give local communities more agency in reporting whether their homes and businesses have broadband that meets their needs, subsequently helping those who do not with federal grants.

Regardless of how the affordability piece turns out — and there is some question among advocates over how hard the Biden administration will be able to push against telecoms in this area — Mitchell said the inclusion of broadband and connectivity in a high-profile federal infrastructure plan is an unprecedented victory for digital inclusion.

“I don’t remember a time when a president came out so boldly with a plan that both struck at the root of the problem and took on such centralized power as the cable companies,” Mitchell said. “It may well be FDR with electrification, only now the cable and telephone companies have looked back and developed a plan to deal with that.”

Greg Guice is the director of government affairs for Public Knowledge, another advocacy group in the space, and he described the relationship between government and big telecommunications companies in this area as a game of cat and mouse, with the latter trying hard to make sure enough people have broadband — or the appearance of having broadband — to keep the government from regulating them much as they do other utilities.

“Decades ago, you had the luxury of an FCC chairman saying everybody would like a Mercedes but not everybody can afford a Mercedes,” Guice said. “That’s a bygone era. Now we recognize this is the electricity, this is the water, this is the gas line into the home ... to be excluded from it means that you’re being left behind.”

THE STATE AND LOCAL PERSPECTIVE


Perhaps the most common sentiment in conversations with stakeholders who work on digital equity was that money is necessary, but it doesn’t solve everything.

Peggy Schaffer is the executive director of the ConnectMaine Authority, a public agency in that state that works on getting all of its communities — many of which are isolated and rural — connected. Schaffer said support from the federal government is vital, but equally important is how that support is distributed.

Her first wish for the new plan is that the money goes to the states, which have a proven track record of handling taxpayer money and are also close to the problems and the solutions at the local level. That also means investing in staff to administer the funds. Her office, for example, may be in line to help manage more than $100 million of broadband investments, with just two full-time staffers.

“Nobody would think about giving the [Department of Transportation] $200 million with just two staff,” she said. And yet, that’s what may happen soon with many states and their broadband or digital inclusion offices, if they even have an office dedicated to the work.

Secondly, Schaffer also wants the federal government to work on a better definition of what constitutes being underserved with broadband, especially as it pertains to upload speed, a crucial determinant of whether businesses can function well online.

Schaffer was pleased that the Biden plan has support for community-build networks and public ownership in some of the infrastructure, but she stressed the importance of making sure all of the involved construction is future-proofed, built in a way that makes it viable for the next 20 years, minimum.

Past that, she also wants the plan to consider skills training and affordability.

“If we just run wire by everybody’s house, and people can’t afford to connect to it, they don’t know how to connect to it, and they don’t have a device? We haven’t done much,” Schaffer said. “When people talk about infrastructure, they forget that if we build highways and no one drives on them, we’re building a bridge to nowhere.”

In a group conversation with tech, innovation and digital inclusion staffers from the local government of San Antonio, the essential nature of Internet access was a given. Candelaria Mendoza, smart city coordinator for San Antonio, is one of the leaders of the city’s growing digital inclusion efforts, and she echoed many of the others in noting the importance of futureproofing, partnerships and shared infrastructure to bridge the digital divide. Small-cell network technology, for example, has meant a number of new partnerships between the city and entities such as the local school district, which has infrastructure where the technology can be installed.

Brian Dillard, San Antonio’s chief innovation officer, said that as a local government entity, they’ve been wanting more granular information about who has Internet in their city — ideally past the information they get from Internet service providers. Dillard said the issue isn’t dishonesty from Internet service providers, but rather the fast-changing needs of residents. Service that may have been adequate as recently as a couple years ago no longer meets residential or business needs. So, a telecom company may be reporting 99 percent coverage of an area where the residents and businesses are in need of better service.

While San Antonio has been working on that issue and will continue to do so as it is able to, what the city could really use federal funds for is building new physical infrastructure to help connect some of the communities on its outermost edges. The intent is not to build public-owned networks competing with private companies, but rather to fill in gaps where it will likely never be possible for those companies to make a profit.

“This isn’t just about who gets access to Netflix,” Dillard said. “It’s about how this impacts companies, and it’s about how this impacts residents on a day-to-day basis.”



Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine
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