What is Digital Equity and Will it Help Louisiana?
Broadband is a crucial component of today’s infrastructure and allows people to stay connected within their communities and meet the demands of modern education and workplaces. Broadband has been compared to a superhighway; its width and speed allow for the rapid transmission of the internet to your device. However, there is a digital divide- an estimated 42 million Americans don’t have access to the benefits of high-speed internet, and an estimated 1.7 million of those are Louisianians.
In a 2021 Infrastructure Bill, Congress tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with bridging the divide and creating “digital equity.” The FCC created the Broadband Equity Access and Employment (BEAD) Program to achieve these goals by distributing needs-based funds to states. Louisiana is receiving $1.35 billion of this aid. However, these funds come with several strings attached. The FCC has incorporated a number of social goals under the umbrella of digital equity that some argue detracts from the immediate needs of those offline and puts an unnecessary burden on broadband providers.
What does digital equity really mean? It’s more than just ensuring that everyone has access to high-speed internet and the skills and tools necessary to leverage that connection. Rather, like so many other reforms pursued in the name of “equity” it is a way for the government to increase regulation in the name of equity and inclusion.
The FCC recently approved Volume 2 of Louisiana’s BEAD proposal, which mentions a number of groups that have a special status and require preferential treatment from broadband providers. This vision for broadband deployment distracts from bridging the digital divide by focusing more on activism than on providing fast and affordable systems to serve all Louisiana citizens.
For example, one group identified is the middle class. The “middle-class affordability” provision
of BEAD requires states to direct providers to tailor their pricing to a subset of the population. Those providers who do not comply are deemed discriminatory and penalized. This provision is an invitation to indirect price control, by forcing states who wish to receive funding to adhere to a federal standard for affordability.
The legislation also prefers the more expensive underground fiber method of broadband deployment, when often, more economical options would serve communities better. For example, for a non-urban area with few houses, it makes more sense to use fixed wireless internet or low earth orbit satellites instead of the fiber direct-to-home approach that is so efficient in suburban and urban areas. This distinction will be vital as Louisiana looks to the needs of its offline residents, many of whom live in rural areas.
Also, the Act describes workforce development as one of its final goals. It stipulates that jobs should be created with specific populations in mind. Investment in a state’s broadband sector will naturally create new jobs, the workforce development mandate can easily be interpreted as a formal jobs program and ultimately a diversion from using the funds to effectively bring Americans online. Louisiana’s most recent BEAD proposal allocates $27 million to training a broadband workforce, a huge sum to address an area that the free market and private sector are better equipped to handle.
More recently, the FCC defined a term from the BEAD proposal: “digital discrimination.” Rather than understanding it as when broadband internet companies treat customers differently based on factors like income, race, religion, or country of origin, it understands it as any disparity of outcome in broadband deployment. In other words, if a protected group is observed to experience a different outcome, internet companies could be blamed for digital discrimination, regardless of their intent or involvement.
This interpretation of digital discrimination is overly broad and bodes ill for the effective and efficient closing of the digital divide. Every broadband internet actor, from large companies to small contractors to technicians will be subjected to FCC scrutiny and involvement. The Wall Street Journal described a few scenarios that could result from such a standard, among them:
“Marketing materials that feature too many white people could be ruled discriminatory. Companies could be forced to scrap credit checks that cause more minorities to be rejected for smartphone leasing plans.”
This level of regulation will discourage progress in the broadband sector by creating an extensive bureaucracy that slows development and heightens fear. Instead of advancing true digital equity, which can affect positive societal change, the social goals of BEAD–and the latest BEAD proposal being pushed by the current Louisiana administration–are distracting from the immediate task at hand.
As the state enters the next phase of the BEAD program, there is an opportunity to improve upon the initial proposal- the final proposal is not due until next year. If Louisiana wishes to continue its leadership in taking advantage of federal funds for broadband deployment, it should prioritize using the technology most appropriate for the region and will favor fast and affordable internet over social goals or workforce programs.
Additionally, ConnectLA and others tasked with broadband installation should collect and rely on accurate and thorough data about the needs of the state. The challenge process for collecting information about the state of broadband in Louisiana is ongoing until the end of December, but the current mapping of areas in need of broadband shows a state ready for connection.
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