New funding for digital equity may benefit adult foundational skills programs

Hello Colleagues,

Today, Saturday November 6th, the Infrastructure Expansion Act of 2021 passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.  According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) it has the following features, many of which, I believe, may be helpful to adult learners and possibly to adult foundational (basic) skills programs and adult schools that serve them.  From today’s NDIA announcement:

The following digital inclusion elements are included in the new Infrastructure Act: 

  • Digital Equity Act: $2.75 billion over 5 years
  • Broadband Grants for States, DC, Puerto Rico & Territories: $42.5 billion
  • Broadband Benefit: $14.2 billion
  • Tribal Connectivity Program: $2 billion
  • Middle Mile Connectivity: $1 billion
  • “Digital Discrimination” by internet service providers is prohibited 
  • Clear labeling of consumer broadband service offerings and prices

For those who may be interested, the NDIA announcement about the Senate Infrastructure bill that passed in August, 2021 includes more detail:

Digital Equity Act: $2.75 billion (over 5 years)

  • $60 million for state planning grants
  • $1.44 billion for state implementation grants
  • $1.25 billion ($250 million a year for 5 years) for competitive grant program

Broadband Grants for States, DC, Puerto Rico & Territories: $42.5 billion

  • This is a new grant program the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will manage. The deployment funds will be issued as block grants to states with rules defined by the NTIA.
  • In addition to deployment, states can use funds from these grants for digital equity uses, including:
    • To deploy affordable networks in low-income, multi-family buildings
    • To promote broadband adoption
    • Deployment grant recipients (ISPs) must offer a ‘low-cost’ or affordable plan for consumers.

Broadband Benefit: $14.2 billion

  • Extends and amends the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, including changing the name to the “Affordable Connectivity Program,” paving the way for a permanent program
  • All internet service plans are required to be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program
  • The program benefit is reduced to $30/month
  • Eligibility for the program is increased from 135% of poverty line to 200% of the poverty line

Tribal Connectivity Program: $2 billion

  • Extends the Tribal Connectivity Program created by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA)

Middle Mile Connectivity: $1 billion

  • Creates a grant program at NTIA for expanding middle mile access, which will help connect unserved anchor institutions and make last-mile buildout to unserved households easier and cheaper

Digital Discrimination

  • The bill text outlines “digital discrimination” (a softened definition of digital redlining) and charges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with creating rules to enforce.

Most of these Infrastructure Expansion Act of 2021 funds will come to the states, so for adult education programs and adult schools to access them they will have to work with the agencies in their states that receive the funds. As a general rule, once the state agency announces the availability of the funds the proposal process or other funding mechanism moves quickly to grant awards and contracts. Programs, schools and agencies that have a proposal ready, and that can offer immediate “shovel-ready” services and/or quickly make purchases may have an advantage. From my understanding, adult foundational skills programs that are addressing digital inclusion and offer digital skills to their students may be eligible for these funds; adult foundational skills programs and schools that offer these services to others in the community who may need only digital literacy skills (often in combination with help on accessing broadband benefits such as affordable Internet access and home computers) may be even more attractive to state agencies whose purpose is to broadly address digital equity in their state. Of course, some of those digital literacy skills participants may discover that they need and want other foundational skills such as English language learning, reading, writing, numeracy, adult secondary education and HSE or Citizenship preparation, work readiness skills, or preparation for post-secondary education.

In a few states, adult foundational skills programs have been able to successfully access and use federal ARPA and CARES funding that comes to their state. For those who may be interested, the Open Door Collective hosted a webinar on this in May 2021, with Eric Nesheim, the Executive Director of Literacy Minnesota. He talked about how adult foundational skills programs and adult schools can partner with state agencies for mutual benefit, how we can ensure that the digital skills piece of digital equity and inclkusion is addressed, and that our role in providing digital literacy is not left out of the funding matrix. You'll find a recording of that webinar here,  slides here, and a handout, "Literacy Minnesota - Access to Federal Funds" here.

I would be interested in hearing from adult foundational skills programs or schools that have used ARPA or CARES funding in their state, particularly if you have advice for programs or schools that have not, but would like to access these funds and also the new digital equity provisions of the Infrastructure Expansion Act of 2021.

David J. Rosen