Girls at home attending school.

The majority of the $65 billion in broadband funding included in the Infrastructure Act that has passed the House and Senate will go toward broadband deployment programs, but the bill also includes $14.2 billion for an Affordable Connectivity Program and $2.75 billion for a Digital Equity Program.

Telecompetitor read through the 68 pages of the bill that pertain to broadband. Earlier this week we did a deep dive on what the bill says about the deployment programs. In today’s post, we do the same for the affordability and digital equity programs.

The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden any day now.

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The Affordable Connectivity Program

The Affordable Connectivity Program is designed to extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit program that was launched earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parameters of that program carry over into the Affordable Connectivity Program. Indeed, the portion of the infrastructure act that pertains to the Affordable Connectivity Program is comprised of instructions about how to modify the Emergency Broadband Benefit program rules included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to reflect the parameters of the new program.

The new program, like its predecessor, will be administered by the FCC and targets low-income households, including those that qualify for reduced-cost school meal programs, certain Pell Grants, the FCC Lifeline program or certain other programs.

The most important difference between the two programs is that the new program provides $30 a month rather than $50 a month toward the cost of broadband service.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program also pays up to $100 toward the cost of one connected device for qualifying households, provided that the household is charged between $10 and $50 for the device. I did not see anything in the infrastructure bill saying that this provision would not carry forward.

The previous program required the FCC to establish an expedited process to approve providers to offer services through the program and many providers have received approval. Based on our reading, it appears that those providers will not have to be re-approved to offer Affordable Connectivity Program service through the infrastructure act.

State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program

The Digital Equity Program is designed to help ensure that all Americans can effectively use broadband and that they do so. It is comprised of two separate programs – the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.

The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program is designed to “promote the achievement of digital equity, support digital inclusion activities and build capacity for efforts by states relating to the adoption of broadband by residents of those states” and will be administered by the Commerce Department.

The program has a budget of $60 million for planning grants to be awarded to individual states. The digital equity grant funding has a budget of $240 million for 2022 and $300 million for each year 2023-2026.

Grant funding will be allocated to the states based on the state’s population, the state’s lack of availability and adoption of broadband in comparison with other states, and the state’s comparative number of people who are in “covered” populations.

“Covered” populations include:

  • Aging individuals
  • Individuals who are incarcerated in non-federal facilities
  • Veterans
  • Individuals with disabilities
  • Individuals with a language barrier
  • Members of a racial or ethnic minority
  • Rural residents
  • People who live in “covered” households

The planning grants will go toward the creation of digital equity plans. Each state will create its own plan, which can be administered by the state or a political subdivision of the state; a not-for-profit corporation, institution, association or coalition but not a school; a community anchor institution other than a school; a local educational agency; an entity located in the state that carries out workforce development programs; an agency of the state that is responsible for supervising adult education and literacy activities; a public or multi-family housing authority in the state or a partnership between any of these entities.

States will have to apply for the planning grants, and Commerce will have to approve the completed plans before releasing grant funding to the states.

The plans must identify barriers to digital equity faced by covered populations in the state. For each covered population, it must include measurable objectives for documenting and promoting the availability and affordability of broadband connectivity and devices, the inclusivity of public resources and services, digital literacy, and awareness of and use of cybersecurity and privacy measures.

The plans also must include an assessment of how the objectives will impact economic and workforce developments goals, educational and health outcomes, civic and social engagement, and delivery of other essential services. Additionally, the plans must include a description of how the state plans to collaborate with key stakeholders.

The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program

The purpose of the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program is to support efforts to achieve digital equity, promote digital inclusion activities and spur greater broadband adoption among covered populations. The program has a budget of $1.25 billion to be distributed over five years.

Funding for the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program will not funnel through the states but will be administered directly by the Commerce Department.

Grants will go to political subdivisions, agencies or “instrumentality” of a state such as an agency responsible for administering or supervising adult education and literacy; native American tribes; non-for-profit entities other than schools; community anchor institutions; local educational agencies’ entities that carry out workforce development programs; and partnerships between any of these entities and an entity that Commerce determines to be in the public interest but is not a school.

Grants can be used to:

  • Develop and implement digital inclusion activities to benefit covered populations
  • Facilitate broadband adoption by covered populations to provide educational and employment opportunities
  • Implement training programs for covered populations
  • Make broadband equipment and software available at little or no cost
  • Construct or upgrade public access computing centers for covered populations through community anchor institutions
  • Undertake other projects that Commerce finds to be consistent with the program’s purpose

Commerce will award funding based on whether applicants will increase internet access and adoption among covered populations, the geographic diversity of the application in comparison with other eligible applications and the extent to which an application may duplicate or conflict with another program.

No more than 90% of the project cost can come through the grant.

Readers interested in more details about infrastructure bill programs covering broadband adoption, digital equity or broadband deployment can find them on pages 754-822 of the bill.

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