Written by Kate Rivera, TLC Executive Director
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) has drafted its Statewide Digital Equity Plan. Public Comment is open with a deadline to submit feedback by 12pm on Monday January 8, 2024.
The final version of the plan will serve as the state's blueprint for advancing digital equity and provide the framework for the distribution of tens of millions of dollars in federal funding. It is imperative that the state's plan reflects the needs and insights of Philadelphia's digital equity community. TLC encourages you and your organizations to review the draft plan and provide feedback via the public comment process.
This is the first in a three-part blog series I wrote to help you understand why the plan is important (that’s this blog), what’s in the plan, and highlight some areas where you may want to provide feedback. Below is some helpful background information about why the plan was developed. Note that this is just my attempt at an explainer—for official guidance, please review the materials published directly by the federal and state governments. Questions or corrections? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) the federal government established the Internet for All initiative. While many people associate the IIJA with repairs to roads and bridges, it also includes a historic amount of funding for digital equity work. This is a huge win for our field, but a lot remains to be done to make sure the funds are used to truly meet the needs in our communities. Most of the federal funding will be distributed through the states. In Pennsylvania the PA Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) is the entity created to disburse most of the funds (through what will be a competitive grant proposal process).
The federal agency administering this funding is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA will administer approx. $48B of funding across four programs. See the graphic below for additional detail. The primary two programs you will hear the most about are:
Digital Equity Act
The $2.75B in Digital Equity Act funding is further divided into three programs. See the graphic below for how the funding is broken out.
Funding to the states is divided into two segments. The State Planning Grant program, which funds each state to complete a planning process, and the State Capacity Grant Program. Under the State Planning Grant program, each state is required to develop a Digital Equity Plan and submit it to the federal government for review. This step must be completed before the states are awarded the State Capacity Grants, which are the actual implementation funds that will make their way down to communities (the state will develop a Request for Proposals for organizations to apply for these funds). We don’t know yet how the NTIA will allocate the $1.44B in State Capacity Grant funding between the states.
There will be a separate funding stream, the Competitive Grant Program, which will be administered directly by the NTIA (rather than through the states). Entities will be able to apply to the NTIA for these funds, however the funding guidelines have not been released yet so we don’t know who will be eligible to apply or what the funds will be able to be used for.
What is the Digital Equity Plan?
As mentioned above, the state’s Digital Equity Plan is a document required by the NTIA in order to disburse State Capacity Grant funds. The NTIA provided states with a list of 15 requirements the plan must meet including:
An implementation strategy that is holistic and addresses the barriers to participation in the digital world, including affordability, devices, digital skills, technical support, and digital navigation. The strategy should:
(a) establish measurable goals, objectives, and proposed core activities to address the needs of covered populations,
(b) set out measures ensuring the plan’s sustainability and effectiveness across State communities, and
(c) adopt mechanisms to ensure that the plan is regularly evaluated and updated.
A Vision for Digital Equity
While the Digital Equity Plan is a required document that states have to develop in accordance with NTIA guidelines, many (including this author) would argue that it should go beyond that to articulate a broader vision for digital equity in the commonwealth and not be limited strictly to the IIJA funding.
From the Benton Institute:
A well-crafted vision of digital equity has the potential to be very powerful. It can: