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Infrastructure Investments in Inclusion - You In?

Updated: May 5, 2022

History may judge the recent passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as the turning point for universal broadband in the U.S.

The bill (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), among its other infrastructure goals, aims to collapse the gulf between those who confidently use technology in their home or business and those who can’t, stating:

The persistent ‘digital divide’ in the United States is a barrier to the economic competitiveness of the United States and equitable distribution of essential public services, including health care and education.

Local communities with a plan for digital inclusion are best poised to leverage the opportunity. The $1.2T legislation allocates $65 billion in funding for broadband to be distributed to states, territories, and Tribal governments, the largest single investment by the federal government in telecommunications history. In most cases, state broadband offices or officials will award funds to local digital inclusion projects aimed at broadband access (e.g., construction of infrastructure), digital literacy, and affordability.

The legislation establishes a grant program, the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, aimed at “un-/underserved service projects,” “connecting eligible community anchor institutions” (e.g., libraries, hospitals), “data collection, broadband mapping, and planning,” “installing internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure,” “providing reduced-cost broadband within a multi-family residential building,” or “broadband adoption, including programs to provide affordable internet-capable devices.” New federal mapping procedures currently underway are intended to yield the authoritative definition of specifically which local areas are “unserved” or “underserved.”

The bill also introduces the Digital Equity Act which creates new grant programs for digital inclusion, such as requiring the FCC to adopt rules banning digital redlining and creating a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet, (Affordable Connectivity Benefit).

Kathryn de Wit, of Pew, unpacked the bill when it passed the Senate in August, writing, “the legislation reflects more than a decade of research on the digital divide with an approach that focuses on broadband deployment, affordability, and adoption in a single bill. In addition, it acknowledges research by The Pew Charitable Trusts and others that has identified states as critical entities in achieving universal availability of affordable internet services.”

If you are new to federal broadband policy, this not the first, nor will it be the only ongoing, federal grant program aimed at expanding broadband and digital skills. Tribal, state, and local communities around the U.S. are currently leveraging billions available in pandemic relief dollars (CARES, CAA, ARPA, etc.) to build broadband infrastructure or sponsor services. Muni Networks, a nonprofit, maintains a running list of community broadband projects using American Rescue Plan dollars for broadband, (or planned/considering). Many states in past years have used federal funds to establish broadband offices or grant programs, as North Carolina and California did, respectively, with recovery act (ARRA) funds following the 2008 financial crisis.

The FCC and USDA have been administering infrastructure grants and loans to private providers in disjointed manner based on faulty coverage data for years. The frustrating and compelling history of federal broadband policy is best articulated in Farm Fresh Broadband by Dr. Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia. Market failures, digital redlining, and the economics of linear density have been the reality for rural and lower-income communities for decades.

The prospect of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act presents a neglected community with a momentous opportunity to invest in their future. Even those granted federal funds in the past for broadband projects will not be precluded from using the new funds, (pending any final rulemaking). Construction of any infrastructure will continue to face ongoing labor market challenges as well as extreme surges in demand for materials to build networks, (e.g., fiber optics, conduit), so the journey won’t be all sunshine and roses.

But those that have taken the time to understand the true problem(s) in their community and collaboratively develop a long-range plan — they will be providing the sunshine for the roses to thrive.

Terry Denoyer is the author of the forthcoming book, Breaking the Internet: How One Community is Working Toward Digital Equity, and a co-founder at Thru, a research and advisory firm. Formerly with Gartner and KPMG, Terry has advised leaders at all levels of government (federal, state, provincial, county, local) and higher education in his 20+ years of management consulting.

Image by Pixabay via Pexels

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