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Addressing the Digital Divide

Jun 21, 2023
Danielle Keller

The need for reliable, high-speed internet access is essential in today’s world. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift toward digital necessity when everyday activities had to be done in a socially distanced manner, including working from home, attending routine appointments, participating in school, and even ordering groceries and household items.  

What is the “digital divide?” 

The internet is a default method for communicating, learning, and doing business--which makes addressing the digital divide a critical mission. Without internet access, many people, especially in isolated rural communities, face immense barriers to socioeconomic opportunity, education, and healthcare. High-speed internet access is quickly becoming as important to our national infrastructure as roads, bridges, and airports. Broadband as critical infrastructure drives employment opportunities for communities, increases access to timely healthcare, provides advancements in education opportunities, and more.  

Isn’t broadband available everywhere? 

Understanding the True State of Connectivity in America, a report released by the National Association of Counties (NACo) and partner organizations, illustrates that nearly 65% of U.S. counties experience internet at speeds below minimum standards set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with that number even higher in rural America, where 77% of counties operate below the FCC standard.  

While availability is crucial, it is also important to consider the affordability of internet access, the required digital devices needed to access and use the internet, and the digital literacy of individuals. Understanding all these aspects is necessary to truly address and close the digital divide. Is it helpful to have access to high-speed internet if it is priced at a point where people are unable to afford it? Is it helpful to provide someone with high-speed internet if they don’t understand how to use it? 

Considering this growing need for digital connectivity and accessibility, the federal government has committed to dramatically increasing broadband funding to support the rollout of universal broadband. If leveraged effectively, this effort could significantly shrink the digital divide. 

NACo Report: Accessible Broadband Access is a Top Equity Issue Facing America’s Counties 

What funding is available? 

In addition to many state-led broadband initiatives, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) includes an unprecedented $65 billion in federal funding to expand broadband access and close the digital divide. This is an opportunity to significantly expand broadband access across the country. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides funds at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Funding is allocated over a five-year period. Many of these funds will come in the form of federal formula or competitive grants. Federal grant funds require significant compliance, and spending must follow certain federal administrative guidelines. 

What are the states’ expectations for these funds? 

State offices should be prepared for compliance and reporting requirements.  

State Broadband Offices will need to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to take advantage of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law broadband funding. These funds are intended to support broadband planning and rollout efforts, such as broadband mapping, staffing of local broadband offices, community outreach, education efforts, etc. State offices will need to understand what the broadband needs are in their state in order to ensure proper coverage when rolling out broadband under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This requires extensive research and strategic planning. Additionally, state offices should be prepared for the compliance and reporting requirements related to the funds received.  

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law broadband program represents a transformative opportunity, but states do not all have the same level of readiness with broadband plans and understanding related to the broadband needs of their communities. It’s important to quickly engage with community leaders and develop robust plans for addressing broadband equity, access, and deployment.  

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