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The Digital Equity Act

Part 6 of the Keller and Heckman Infrastructure Act Blog Series

This is our 6th entry in our blog series on the major provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“the IIJA” or “the Act”). Previous blog entries examined the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the $1 billion Middle Mile grant programthe Act’s support for broadband partnerships,  the Affordable Connectivity Program, and the Act’s key cybersecurity provisions. Today’s post reviews the Act’s provisions aimed at promoting digital equity by increasing broadband adoption and accessibility.

Digital Equity Act Allocates $2.75 Billion for Digital Equity and Inclusion

The Digital Equity Act (“DEA”) (enacted as §§ 60301 – 60307-the IIJA) allocates $2.75 billion to promote digital equity and digital inclusion. The DEA establishes three new grant programs to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”): (1) State Digital Equity Planning Grants, (2) State Digital Equity Capacity Grants, and (3) Digital Equity Competitive Grants. Each is briefly summarized below.

Before proceeding, readers should note that NTIA has issued a request for comment on several IIJA broadband programs, including the Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, with comments due February 4, 2022. NTIA intends to release a future request for comment on the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program and the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program.

1. State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program ($60 million)

The State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program allocates $60 million for states and territories to develop “Digital Equity Plans.” The purpose of the program is to ensure that states have the planning capacity to design and support digital equity and inclusion programs. The NTIA will make planning grants available directly to states.

To be eligible for a grant, a state must submit an application in response to the NTIA’s publication of a “Notice of Funding Availability” and designate a plan administrator.[1] The application must include a commitment to develop the state digital equity plan within one year after being awarded the grant.

Among other things, a State Digital Equity Plan must:

  • Identify barriers to digital equity faced by covered populations[2] in the state;

  • Identify measurable objectives for documenting and promoting: (1) the availability, affordability, and access to broadband technology; (2) the online accessibility and inclusivity of public resources; (3) digital literacy; (4) awareness and use of measures to secure an individual’s online privacy and cybersecurity; and (5) the availability and affordability of consumer devices and technical support;

  • Provide an assessment of how the objectives will impact the state’s: (1) economic and workforce development goals; (2) educational goals; (3) health goals; (4) civic and social engagement; and (5) delivery of other essential services; and

  • Provide a description of how the state plans to collaborate with key stakeholders including: (1) community anchor institutions; (2) municipal governments; (3) local educational agencies; (4) nonprofit organizations; (5) organizations that represent people with disabilities, aging individuals, individuals with language barriers or low levels of literacy; (6) the state’s non-federal incarcerated population; (7) civil rights organizations; (8) workforce development programs; and (9) public housing authorities.

2. State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program ($1.44 billion)

The State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program allocates $1.44 billion for states and territories to support the implementation of their State Digital Equity Plans.[3] The NTIA will dispense grant funding based on the following criteria:

  • 50% of the total grant amount shall be based on the population of the eligible state in proportion to the total population of all eligible states.

  • 25% of the total grant amount shall be based on the number of individuals in the eligible state who are members of covered populations in proportion to the total number of individuals in all eligible states who are members of covered populations.

  • 25% of the total grant amount shall be based on the comparative lack of availability and adoption of broadband in the eligible state in proportion to the lack of availability and adoption of broadband of all eligible states.

Digital Equity Capacity Grants may be used to:

  • Update or maintain the State Digital Equity Plan (no more than 20% of total).
  • Implement the State Digital Equity Plan (including subcontracting for assistance implementing the plan).
  • Pursue digital inclusion activities consistent with the State Digital Equity Plan.

States will have five years to spend grant awards. The grant funds are meant to supplement, not supplant, other federal or state support for these activities.

3. Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program ($1.25 billion)

The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program allocates $1.25 billion[4] to support efforts to achieve digital equity, promote digital inclusion activities, and spur greater adoption of broadband among covered populations.

Unlike State Digital Equity Planning Grants and State Digital Equity Capacity Grants, the Competitive Grants are broadly eligible to any political subdivision,  agency, or instrumentality of a state, including an agency responsible for administering adult education and literacy activities; an Indian Tribe, Alaskan Native, or Hawaiian Native organization; or a foundation, corporation, institution, association, or coalition if for a not-for-profit providing services in the state (but is  not a school); a community anchor institution located in the state; a local educational agency; an entity located in the state that carries out a workforce development program; or a partnership of eligible entities.

In reviewing applications, NTIA will consider:

  • Whether the applicant will increase Internet access and broadband adoption among covered populations;

  • Geographic diversity of applicants; and

  • The extent to which an application may duplicate or conflict with another program.

Grants must support at least one of the following:

  • Development and implementation of digital inclusion activities that benefit covered populations.

  • Facilitating the adoption of broadband by covered populations to provide educational and employment opportunities.

  • Implementation of training programs for covered populations that cover basic, advanced, and applied skills—or other workforce development programs.

  • Provision of free or low-cost equipment and networking capabilities to covered populations.

  • Construction, upgrade, or operation of new or existing public access computing centers for covered populations through community anchor institutions.

The federal share of any grant funded project cannot exceed 90%. Grants are to be used over a four year period. Finally, funds are meant to supplement, not supplant other federal or state support for these activities.

***


[1] The digital equity plan administrator may be a state, political subdivision, agency, or instrumentality of the state; an Indian Tribe, Alaskan Native, or Hawaiian Native organization; or a nonprofit or governmental community support organization located in the state (other than a school).

[2] “Covered populations” include those living in low-income households or rural areas, older adults, veterans, racial or ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities, language barriers, or who are incarcerated.

[3] The total funding is $1.44 billion comprised of $240 million in fiscal year 2022 and $300 million per year thereafter for fiscal years 2023-2026.

[4] Total funding is $1.25 billion comprised of $250 million per year in fiscal years 2022-2026.

© 2022 Keller and Heckman LLPNational Law Review, Volume XII, Number 20
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About this Author

Keller and Heckman’s Telecommunications practice represents major domestic and multinational companies, start-ups, associations, cooperatives, municipalities, and other government entities on a wide range of regulatory, administrative, legislative, and judicial matters involving wireless communications, broadband and telecommunication services, and infrastructure. Working regularly with engineering, financial, and other specialists, we help our clients formulate and implement comprehensive telecommunications plans, develop advanced communications systems, deploy new...

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