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Broadband and digital equity: the needs and lessons from across the U.S.

As U.S. Digital Response launches our newest program focus area, Broadband and Digital Equity, we wanted to share lessons from the field for governments looking to close the digital divide

The painful realities of the digital divide are linked to availability, access, and affordability: while broadband access is increasing, many people can’t afford it. Connecting more communities with fast, affordable internet in a way that meets all their residents’ needs has become a priority for governments.

That’s why U.S. Digital Response (USDR) has launched our most recent program focus area: Broadband and Digital Equity. Designed to help state, local, and tribal governments increase access to high-speed internet, we hope to help close the digital divide no matter what community you live in. We are actively looking to work with government agencies as we ramp up this effort, if you’re interested in working with us on broadband issues please reach out here.

Our focus on broadband equity follows funding commitments on this issue from policymakers at every level of government. We’ve seen the passing of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which includes $350 billion to support projects such as broadband expansion. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) also recently passed, with $65 billion to help states boost high-speed internet access and adoption plus $2.75 billion to promote digital equity and inclusion.

With a new flow of federal funding to support broadband expansion, and ambitious timelines to conduct cross-sector collaboration and engagement, we know agencies across the country feel overwhelmed by the task ahead.

Over the last six months, USDR held listening sessions with a variety of government agencies as well as organizations across the broadband and digital equity ecosystem. Our goal? To understand where their needs are and the most significant lessons learned so far. We heard common pain points and lessons from the field that agencies across the country could gain insight from.

Here are our biggest takeaways from those conversations:

Capacity to deliver continues to evolve

When it comes to establishing broadband practices, there’s a wide range of progress across the states and local governments. Many local governments have been operating in the digital equity space for years and have deep expertise on barriers and programming for internet access. Some states have heavily staffed-up, but many are still struggling to establish dedicated offices. While technical talent, like network engineers and infrastructure planners, are needed, we’re seeing an emphasis on softer skills in these programs. Positions ranging from community engagement, user research, procurement, and grants management will be critical to the highly complex coordinated efforts that state and local governments undertake.

Whether teams are recruiting for new talent, being creative about reassigning staff internally, or relying on outsourcing capacity, one thing is for sure: nearly every team in the country is growing right now.

Rural and urban needs are vastly different, from infrastructure to community building to communications

There is a distinct difference in broadband needs in rural versus urban areas, including the state of infrastructure, the interest in participating in community engagement efforts, and the way to frame the benefits of broadband. Our partners emphasized the importance of focusing on messaging. In some communities, it’s best to focus on the day-to-day benefits of high-speed internet — such as buying groceries online, video conferencing with grandkids, and online doctor’s visits. We heard that strategies designed to engage rural residents must be in-tune with local messengers and partners. Partners told us that urban challenges at the infrastructure level are often building-based, particularly with multi-unit dwellings. Similar to rural messaging, urban-based efforts looking to help residents get online must focus on engaging the communities they are already a part of.

There’s a lot of support, but limited information

The broadband space is both fast- and slow-moving. It is a highly complex space where governments need to understand funding streams, technical feasibility, community needs, federal and state guidance, along with political support.

A wide array of organizations, consultants, and programs support governments with resourcing and momentum on broadband. Many organizations focus on support in one domain area, such as device planning, community engagement, data, or mapping.

We’re seeing how providing prototypes and smaller packages can help inform larger investments. With such high-stakes and fast timelines in regards to the scale of budgets and plans, significant decisions are often made with limited information. Approaching these efforts by iterating at each stage can help get large projects off the ground.

With the treasure trove of learning from our past and current engagements and discovery research, USDR is prepared to help.

We know that even the question “how can we help?” often feels intimidating as you stare down the impossible array of projects ahead. USDR is prepared to provide relief to our government partners — for free — by focusing on four key areas:

1. Increase utilization of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)

The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program provides eligible households with a discount on home broadband service, aiming to reduce the cost to $30/month or less. However, many jurisdictions estimate that the program is underutilized. USDR can support governments with educating the public about ACP and helping applicants determine the best benefits for them by focusing our work on reaching limited-English proficiency and underserved communities, for whom benefits access is often a challenge.

2. Support the FCC challenge process
The FCC is expected to release updated broadband access maps in Fall 2022. A “challenge process” phase will follow the release, in which governments, consumers, and internet service providers can contest the accuracy of the maps. As details about the challenge process continue to emerge, USDR is here to understand better how we can help jurisdictions with their data collection and reporting needs.

3. Maps for broadband decision-making
We’ve learned that governments and public entities need actionable maps so they can plan where to build broadband and digital-equity programming next. USDR’s mapping and data visualization experts can help broadband decision-makers use maps as a key enabler for planning. We’d like to understand why current maps aren’t working, what new mapping data is needed, and which existing datasets can answer policy or implementation questions.

To close the digital divide, our communities must focus on availability, affordability, and access. USDR hopes to help bridge this gap across our country by sharing lessons learned and collective needs.

U.S. Digital Response has a team of pro bono professionals ready to help governments and NGOs respond to the critical needs of their communities. Need help? Fill out this brief intake form to connect with USDR, and we’ll be in touch quickly.

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U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

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U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.