CLEVELAND — A consortium of industry experts, non-profit leaders and a litany of local, state, and federal officials will be converging on Cleveland this week for a two-day summit on broadband access and the nation’s digital divide. Organized by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the broadband access summit comes as the federal government has appropriated a historic amount of funding through 2021’s infrastructure bill to improve broadband access and affordability nationwide.
The federal funding soon to be available to state and tribal governments mark the first time the federal government has provided states with money specifically earmarked for the build-out of broadband infrastructure, its deployment as well as other digital equity programs. Kathryn de Wit, the broadband access initiative project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts said the unprecedented federal funding, while incredibly necessary, also comes with significant challenges for local and state government officials.
“We are talking about incredibly complex policy that deals with every level of government,” de Wit said. “Building the internet is not as simple as hanging wires on a pole and calling it a day.”
Providing non-profit leaders and local and state governments with the necessary tools in order to draft policy is one of the cornerstones of this week’s summit in Downtown Cleveland. Selecting Cleveland, de Wit said, was by design, given the city’s recent designation as one of the least-connected big cities in the country.
Leon Wilson, the chief of digital innovation and chief information officer for the Cleveland Foundation, said Cleveland’s digital divide is not only due to the lack of access to high-speed broadband internet service, but also the struggle that many Cleveland families have in being able to afford broadband internet service.
“What we find here in Cleveland is that we don’t have enough of our households that are regularly paying for an internet subscription,” Wilson said. “We don’t have enough residents that can pay $50 a month, $75 a month for internet access. You’re looking for affordability as the issue for us. That’s where that digital equity piece of that $65 billion comes into play.”
Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, more than $40 billion was allocated to help states design, construct and implement their expansion of broadband services. More than $20 billion will be used for digital equity purposes, including outreach campaigns to get people signed up on the expanded broadband networks.
Under the legislation, the federal government’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration, under the purview of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, will be tasked with building the physical infrastructure needed for expanded broadband access. The Federal Communications Administration has allocated $14 billion in order to provide low-income families with vouchers for internet service through the newly-created American Connectivity Program.
The conversation around the lack of affordable, high-speed internet service for many Americans, particularly those in rural and low-income communities, has been moving at a frenzied pace since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed just how prevalent the digital divide is in American life.
“Maybe 15 years ago, the internet was a luxury… then in the 2000s, it became no longer a luxury but a necessity,” Wilson said. “A lot of people are saying this is our moment and ‘thank you’ in a morbid kind of way for the pandemic exposing what was always there.”
This week’s summit, which will be held at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, will gather industry experts for a series of workshops and discussions on how to build broadband programs and partnerships that will serve communities well into the future, de Wit said.
“Yes, the amount of money that has been appropriated is significant and historic but it’s also the policy itself,” de Wit said. “This is the first time that the federal government will be providing funds to states for a program like this. When you look at communities that do not have access to an affordable or reliable high-speed internet connection, right now, they are either low density, low income, or both. What this law does and what this program will do is fix and fill that gap.”