States Getting Ready to Spend Broadband and Digital Equity Dollars

Broadband offices are using federal planning funds to prepare required action plans

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States Getting Ready to Spend Broadband and Digital Equity Dollars
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Broadband officials have been hitting the road this year, conducting listening sessions across their states and territories. With several holding at least one meeting in every single county, they are cataloging how their residents access the internet and where there are barriers to deploying infrastructure and digital services.

These briefings, town halls, and surveys are part of a multistep process that states and territories have started to implement two programs from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA): the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act (DEA) programs. Lawmakers enacted BEAD to ensure that high-speed internet infrastructure is available to every household and business, and DEA to help ensure that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity to make full use of the digital economy.

With historic amounts of money, these programs are enabling states and territories to build the operational capacity required to effectively administer the funds and methodically plan strategies for bridging the digital divide.

Planning for broadband

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) last year announced BEAD and DEA planning awards to all 50 states, Washington, D.C, and Puerto Rico. Each state could request up to $5 million of its BEAD allocation ($1.25 million for territories). In addition, NTIA distributed $60 million from the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program for DEA planning on a formula basis.

The BEAD awards started a 270-day clock for states and territories to submit their five-year action plans. These governments also have 365 days to submit their digital equity plans. Louisiana was the first state to receive its planning fund award and is expected to be the first to release its five-year action plan by the end of May 2023. Over the next year, every state and territory will follow suit.

Federal guidance specifies certain activities these funds must be used for; for example, to collaborate with local, regional, and Tribal entities, develop asset inventories, and identify barriers to high-speed internet access and adoption. However, state and territory officials have had to determine how they will budget their awards to both meet these planning requirements and set their programs up to effectively administer the deployment funds.  

Pew’s analysis of each state and territory’s announced BEAD and DEA planning awards has identified several strategies for how the funds are being used to go beyond the minimum requirements, including building program and staff capacity, making subgrants to local or regional entities, investing in local technical assistance, and building on past state planning efforts.

Unsurprisingly, nearly every state has emphasized using its planning funds to build program capacity by hiring additional staff and contractors. This underscores the importance of having fully staffed broadband offices to oversee and deploy federal funds. For many states this includes filling new positions, such as digital equity managers or community engagement specialists.

States are also looking to build capacity outside of their broadband offices by partnering with local governments and organizations to develop localized BEAD and DEA plans that can inform their broader efforts. For example, Ohio has set up five regional digital inclusion alliances to collaborate with the state office to better engage with local stakeholders and understand the unique opportunities and barriers in each region. Similarly, Wisconsin has awarded subgrants of its BEAD planning funds to all 72 counties and five Tribal entities to conduct their own planning. More than half of these counties are collaborating through regional economic development organizations.

Several states are also using existing or creating new statewide planning entities to collect a wide variety of feedback. West Virginia has partnered with Marshall University and West Virginia University as part of its core planning team and established a digital equity steering committee that includes the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, AARP West Virginia, the West Virginia Library Association, and other partners. Connecticut, meanwhile, established the Connecticut Center for Digital Equity Research in partnership with the University of Connecticut School of Public Policy to identify barriers, augment the state’s asset mapping, and support future research.

Several states have also said they will use the planning funds in unique ways. Alaska, for instance, announced it will use a portion of its BEAD planning funds to develop a climate threat assessment to ensure that its infrastructure investments can account for the risk of future changes in topography and are resilient to disasters. Alaska may be the only state to mention this type of investment in its award announcement, but identifying and mitigating climate and disaster risks will be a required component of each state’s eventual BEAD program.

States developing DEA plans must conduct outreach that includes opportunities for public comment and engagement from “covered populations.” NTIA defines these populations as individuals from historically disconnected communities. Eight specific populations are listed, including people with disabilities, racial or ethnic minority groups, and residents of rural areas. Many states are using their DEA planning funds to conduct outreach to each population while others are making subgrants to external organizations to enhance these efforts. Wisconsin, for example, has awarded $335,000 in DEA planning funds to seven organizations to lead outreach and engagement activities with the covered populations they already serve. In Connecticut, the state is leveraging its library system's bookmobile to visit the least-connected cities and towns to gather input through a resident survey.

Finally, within their DEA planning efforts, a few states have announced plans to increase the capacity of their adoption and digital literacy programs. Illinois is devoting planning funds to train and recruit digital navigators—individuals who work with community members on connecting to the internet, operating devices, building digital skills, or accessing available resources. Digital navigators can help qualified households enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal subsidy of up to $30 a month for broadband service. Underscoring the connections between digital navigators, ACP, and state planning efforts, Missouri awarded $250,000 through its Digital Demonstration Projects Grant Program across 10 organizations to increase their digital navigator capacity and augment their ACP promotional activities. The state’s broadband office will collect data on these efforts to inform the statewide plan.

States releasing their five-year action plans and digital equity plans will mark a significant milestone in implementing IIJA. The BEAD and DEA planning award announcements make clear that state broadband programs anticipate that deploying IIJA funding will be a significant undertaking. They are developing intentional strategies to ensure that they have the information, community input, and capacity to do so. In most cases, states and territories are using these planning funds to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to prepare for the next phase of these programs: the deployment of billions of dollars for broadband infrastructure and digital equity.

Jake Varn is an associate manager and Lily Gong is a former associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative.

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