Across the country, broadband advocates and representatives are crunching numbers to figure out how to implement an often under-examined piece of the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program puzzle: What does digital equity look like?
Passed alongside BEAD as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Digital Equity Act (DEA) provides $2.75 billion dollars that will be parsed between states and territories to help them implement digital equity plans. Right now, states have either been awarded or are waiting to receive their share of $60 million dollars in initial equity planning grants. With them, they can map out how they’re going to put DEA’s upcoming competitive funding to use.
Defining digital equity
Due to its malleability, digital equity can feel like a slippery term in practice. But to Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, there are arguably four elements to digital equity: a quality internet connection, affordability, access to devices and digital literacy.
“[Digital literacy] is a piece we don’t talk about often enough. Are the institutional support systems in the community able to help folks when they don’t have skills or access to devices? Are our civil organizations providing services to build up digital literacy in users?”
This is where current DEA planning comes in. Missouri, for example, received approximately $830,000 in DEA funds over the winter months and has been working intensively on mapping digital equity initiatives since. One effort that has already been planned and awarded covers digital demonstration projects.
“The state of Missouri hasn’t done digital equity work before, so we want to have background on what works and what doesn’t,” said BJ Tanksley, director of the Office of Broadband Development within the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Originally founded in 2016, the office grew substantially after the roll-out of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). When fully staffed, they have twelve team members.
Per the office’s definition, digital equity means that every Missourian has access and the skills to participate in the digital economy. “You have to have both, right? It doesn’t matter if you have the access but don’t see the value in it,” he explained.
In the case of Missouri, a core fact that differentiates their broadband needs from other states is that while it’s not as rural as other places, it has a wide set of completely disconnected residents in rural areas. These are the precise places where digital literacy efforts are perhaps the most sorely needed.
Ten different digital demonstration projects across Missouri were awarded $25,000 apiece over the past month from Tanksley’s office. Recipients have four to five months to test the waters of their digital equity proposals. Some projects highlight digital navigators who can help with on-the-ground digital literacy efforts or signing residents up for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
Another predominant model that organizations are experimenting with is what Tanksley calls “train the trainer.” Specific workers are credentialed to be able to train others to administer digital literacy lessons and skill-building programs.
“We realize that getting people the skills necessary is taken lightly, but it shouldn’t be,” Tanksley said. “We see it’s a big part of the future.”
Civic institutions receiving these awards include the University of Missouri, regional planning committees, and nonprofit organizations and run the gamut of local, regional, and statewide footprints.
However, the larger cities of Missouri have more existing institutions that administer digital equity programming to residents. Those same entities simply aren’t available in rural pockets of the state without the same resources.
“[Our question is] how do you replicate what is being done in the populated areas versus the less populated areas? The rest of the state has to see help there, too,” said Tanksley.
No two states are going to be exactly alike in their DEA or BEAD planning efforts. De Wit has noticed DEA allotments falling into three distinct buckets: staffing broadband offices, building technical capacity through community partnerships, and launching initiatives, like digital navigator programs, to help get people signed up for ACP benefits.
One of the silver linings of the planning process is that while the fruits of any state planning may take years to mature, effective deployment requires everyone at the table. “They’re having conversations of where connections don’t exist and why,” said de Wit. “It’s forcing conversations on adoption, affordability and what encourages those folks to stay offline. How can we remove barriers to them getting online?”
Each state has a 270-day window for BEAD planning and 365 days for DEA. The clock is ticking, but some states haven’t even received their initial planning funds yet. “Building community relationships is time-intensive. With delays in funding, they can’t move forward,” de Wit noted.
There are many murmurs that BEAD may collide with a staffing shortage of fiber technicians, but both de Wit and Tanksley warned digital equity programs may see their own staffing troubles, too. “There is a workforce shortage in the field in general… You have to train staff and train community members. This all pulls on resources [civic] organizations may not have,” de Wit said. “If we don’t have the staff that is trained not only to deliver digital equity but implement it, we will have a problem.”
Tanksley also observed that while there have been a lot of proactive conversations on construction staffing, that same consideration doesn’t trickle down to the civic entities that will step in and make internet access count. “A lot of times those we’ve funded are leaning on current staff, but what happens when you have to amplify them?”
When thoughtfully crafted, a state’s digital equity plan has the capability to address some of the country’s largest societal problems: agriculture, healthcare, education and literacy. Looking ahead, de Wit also hopes that an actionable planning process by each state will prompt the federal government to, in turn, take their efforts seriously and use them as metrics to benchmark national progress.
As Tanksley’s team gets further into planning and digital demonstration program results come to fruition, the goal is to create a tried-and-true digital equity process that has strong enough bones to last beyond the life of DEA funding.
“The state of Missouri is estimated to receive $20 million dollars [in DEA]. That won’t last forever…The way we invest in that builds a climate where there’s a sustainable model after we’re gone. The work will not be done when the funding is over,” he concluded.