As the U.S. sets out to get everyone connected to broadband, it’s about more than just making sure broadband is available everywhere. As Angela Thi Bennett, NTIA’s first director of digital equity put it in an interview with Telecompetitor, “We’re not just focused on the technical aspects of building out the network but ensuring that people are at the epicenter.”
That, she said, will require a “whole of nation” approach that will involve federal and state partners, philanthropy organizations and the private sector.
According to Bennett, “The states are approaching this not as a check-the-box but approaching it as a meaningful way to incorporate [digital equity] into their plans.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, not only made $42.5 billion available for broadband deployments; it also made $2.75 billion available for digital equity programs.
Three Digital Equity Programs
The digital equity funding includes $60 million for state digital equity planning grants, $1.44 billion for a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and $1.25 billion for a Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.
All states received their digital equity planning grants before year-end 2022. The states have been working on their plans to ensure that “covered” populations will be able to benefit from “Internet for All” initiatives.
Covered populations include:
- Aging individuals
- Individuals who are incarcerated in non-federal facilities
- Individuals with disabilities
- Individuals with a language barrier
- Members of a racial or ethnic minority
- Rural residents
- People who love “covered” households
Different states are on different timelines when it comes to their digital equity plans. When Telecompetitor spoke with Bennett in mid-August, several states had made their plans available for public comment, while others were still working on the plans.
The Digital Capacity Grant Program will be administered by the states under NTIA’s guidance. NTIA plans to issue a notice of funding opportunity for the program in early 2024.
The Competitive Grant Program will be administered directly by NTIA and will be the final phase of digital equity initiatives outlined in the IIJA.
As Bennett explained, “When the Competitive Grant Program launches, it will fill in gaps” left from the state grant program.
It’s worth noting that digital equity is also an important element of the planning process for the BEAD broadband deployment program.
Bennett came to NTIA from non-profit DigitalC in Clevaland, where she was director of advocacy, a job that entailed “helping to develop a strategy to connect with the community and educating leadership at the local state and national level on the importance of access, not only to high-speed internet, but also to resources and skills to improve people’s lives,” she said.
The move to NTIA is enabling her to take the work she was doing at the local level to the national level.
As Bennett noted, the digital equity plans outlined in the IIJA require “robust local engagement” and bring “the voices of all the people to the table.”
Ultimately, it’s “the largest demonstration of participatory democracy that our country has ever seen,” she said.