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Our Challenge to Finally Close the Digital Divide

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of July 26–30, 2021

Robbie McBeath
McBeath

For 40 years, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society has helped strengthen communities by advancing communications in the public interest. Today, you may know us best for providing day-to-day support and resources to the community of people who care about “broadband for all.” 

In Broadband for America Now we laid out our rationale for a national broadband strategy to achieve equitable broadband access in the U.S. In this and future articles, we will provide updates on our efforts to help ensure everyone in the U.S. can use High-Performance Broadband. 

This is a historic time for broadband investment. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the high costs of being offline. In response, Congress, over the past year, passed two laws—the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan—with an unprecedented amount of funding devoted to promoting digital equity.

Communities should be engaged now to help craft long-term connectivity goals and ensure that diverse voices are part of the discussion—and that’s our job. Here’s a sampling of Benton resources that explain what federal broadband funds are available, assist state and local leaders to meet connectivity challenges, recognize broadband champions, and promote digital equity. 

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 — Enacted December 2020

American Rescue Plan Act — Enacted March 2021

The Importance of State and Local Leadership

“The greatest symbols of our democracy are in Washington, but its heart is in local communities where solutions are vastly more important than partisanship. Communities must be empowered to lead the way,” Benton Institute Executive Director Adrianne Furniss wrote at the beginning of the year.

Putting State Broadband Funds to Work: Best Practices in State Rural Broadband Grant Programs

Recognizing the important roles of states in addressing the digital divide, Putting State Broadband Funds to Work: Best Practices In State Rural Broadband Grant Programs highlights efforts to incubate local initiatives. Because it is at the state, county, and local levels where remarkable innovation has developed. Those states that have long-established programs for addressing rural broadband gaps offer a valuable history of lessons learned, both of what works and what doesn’t. In subsequent case studies to be published online later in 2021, authors Ryland Sherman, Joanne Hovis, and Jacob Levin will illustrate these programs and practices in more depth.

Christopher Ali
Ali

County-level governments can also be a crucial source for broadband leadership. Counties: The Missing Pieces in the Broadband Puzzle—written by former Benton Faculty Research Fellow Christopher Ali along with University of Virginia students Abby Simmerman and Nicholas Lansing—shares early results of the Virginia County Broadband Survey and explores the increasingly important role counties play in broadband deployment.

Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity Challenges

One might think this is the moment for community broadband networks. The truth is, locally-directed networks have been serving their communities for a long, long time. Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity Challenges—written by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Christopher Mitchell, Sean Gonsalves, and Jericho Casper—offers a taste of the variety of models that communities can look to when seeking solutions to their connectivity challenges. This collection is a preview for a much larger compendium of community-led broadband case studies that will be released later this year. The vast majority of community-led broadband networks have succeeded, providing robust service where it had not been available before or providing competition for incumbent cable and telephone companies.

The Benton Institute has also been busy in our home state of Illinois, collaborating with the groundbreaking efforts of the Illinois Office of Broadband. We wrote about how Illinois is addressing the digital divide with its vast broadband infrastructure construction, mapping efforts, community broadband planning and engagement initiatives, and other digital equity efforts. 

Those interested in staying up-to-date on broadband news in Illinois can subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter, Illinois Broadband Connections.

The Benton Institute is a key collaborator in the Illinois Connected Communities program, an education and capacity-building effort that guides communities in completing a community-driven, broadband strategic plan. The goal is for communities to craft strategic action plans that articulate the community’s vision and set an agenda for progress toward improved broadband access, adoption, and/or use implementation. Selected communities receive a state grant of up to $15,000 and participate in 50 hours of Benton Institute-run consultation and community planning facilitation. You can read about the twelve communities that participated in the program’s first year here

Beyond our analyses, Benton continues to champion fast, fair, open broadband for all by connecting stakeholders, supporting legal and policy experts, and curating and distributing vital information. Below are just a few other efforts from the Benton Institute.

Bringing Broadband to the Farmhouse, the Field, and Rural Communities

United Soybean Board

The United Soybean Board (USB) and the Benton Institute convened 24 participants in a discussion on broadband’s role in sustainable agriculture on May 4, 2021. Farmers, rural educators, agricultural experts, equipment manufacturers, broadband providers, and experts in public policy explored the connectivity needs of farmers and rural agricultural communities, with particular emphasis on how connected technologies can enable sustainable, data-driven agriculture. Farmers and their families, like all Americans, need high-performance broadband now—for their work, health, and education.

Meagan Kaiser, a farmer from Missouri representing USB, said, “This is not just about streaming video when the sun goes down. It’s about finding ways to incorporate more data so that we can make our businesses run with increasing efficiency and sustainability. We know that it’s important to have everybody at the table and to come together with farmers, agricultural leaders, and other experts and to figure out solutions to our issues.”

What kinds of connectivity do farmers need in the farmhouse or farm office, in the field, and in the community to enable sustainable, data-driven agriculture? We’ll be offering some answers later this summer.

Committed to Digital Equity

Why Low-Cost Devices Matter for Broadband Policy

Benton Senior Faculty Research Fellow Colin Rhinsemith
Rhinesmith

Building off his previous Benton publication, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption InitiativesBenton Senior Faculty Research Fellow Colin Rhinesmith explains how low-cost devices and other affordability measures can inform the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, as well as other broadband policy proposals focused on promoting digital equity. 

Digital Equity Champions

Benton Digital Equity Chamions 2021

At the end of May at a National Digital Inclusion Alliance event, Benton’s Executive Director Adrianne B. Furniss presented the 2021 Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award to Monica Babine. Monica’s career in digital equity has served the state of Washington for over 30 years.
 
At Washington State University’s Extension’s Division of Governmental Studies & Services, Monica created the Broadband Action Team model to help local leaders interested in broadband planning. She’s seen these teams grow across Washington State, engaging people to identify local digital divides and make plans to bridge them. Babine’s many career achievements were recognized by Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) on June 11, remarks which highlighted her having received the 2021 Digital Equity Champion Award.
 
The 2021 Charles Benton Emerging Leader Award went to Geoff Millener, the senior program and operations officer at the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for his efforts to bring no-cost high-speed internet to 13,000 students across Hamilton County during the COVID-19 emergency. Geoff has also pushed for the use of data to understand the impact of EdConnect. He is part of a small group collaborating with a research team from Boston College to collect baseline data and monitor how the program impacts education, health, and other aspects of life. And he helped to raise more than $8 million to support local digital equity efforts in the last year.

Benton Welcomes National Broadband Adoption Expert John Horrigan

Benton Senior Fellow John Horrigan
Horrigan

On June 22, the Benton Institute named John Horrigan the new Benton Senior Fellow. In the coming months, Horrigan will lead Benton’s research on the FCC’s Lifeline program which provides discounted phone and internet service for low-income Americans. “I could not be more pleased to be part of the Benton Institute,” Horrigan said. “With its commitment to research and evidence in policy debates, Benton is an important voice in ensuring that communications policy adheres to the values of inclusiveness and equity. I am glad to contribute to it.”

On July 15, Horrigan dove into the early enrollment data of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, finding that just 1 in 12 eligible households had enrolled so far. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Aug 2—Connecting the Heartland: Closing the Adoption Gap and Promoting Digital Equity Webinar (Heartland Foward)

Aug 3—Emergency Connectivity Fund Program FAQs Webinar (FCC)

Aug 4—Broadband Infrastructure Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 5—August 2021 Open Meeting (FCC)

Aug 5—Broadband Infrastructure Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 11—Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 12—Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 18—Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 19—Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program Webinar (NTIA)

Aug 19—Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States (FCC)