What is digital equity and what does it mean for Louisiana?
Broadband is considered to be a part of today’s infrastructure, especially with the rise of work-from-home culture. Combined with the increasingly online nature of education, those with broadband access can connect to their community in ways those without it cannot. Nearly 42 million Americans do not have access to the benefits and opportunities high-speed internet provides, and almost 1.7 million of those are in Louisiana.
Congress tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a 2021 Infrastructure Bill with bridging the divide and creating “digital equity.” In response, the Broadband Equity Access and Employment (BEAD) Program was created to distribute needs-based funds to the states. Louisiana is receiving $1.35 billion of this aid. However, like most federal funding, it comes with strings attached.
The FCC has lumped a number of social goals in the name of digital equity that some argue detracts from the immediate needs of those offline and puts an unnecessary burden on broadband providers. The term “digital equity” is not only access to high-speed internet, it also seems to be 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 are expected to receive preferential treatment from broadband providers. For example, one group identified in the proposal is the middle class. The “middle-class affordability” provision of BEAD requires the state to pressure providers to limit their pricing to the abilities of a subset of the population. Those providers are penalized if they do not adhere to this practice. For many, this is considered indirect price control by forcing states to sing for their supper, so to speak.
In another vein, this legislation also prefers to use the most expensive materials for broadband deployment, when more economical options could serve our communities more efficiently. Many residents of Louisiana are considered rural, and these areas would be better served with the use of low earth orbit satellites or fixed wireless internet, rather than the fiber direct-to-home approach that is efficient in suburban and urban areas.
Workforce development is also outlined as a goal of the Act, allocating $27 million to training a broadband workforce. Rather than allowing the private sector to bridge the divide between supply and demand, this allocation could ultimately be considered a diversion from the true need being felt in this state.
The FCC recently defined a term from the BEAD proposal: “digital discrimination.” The FCC understands it as any disparity of outcome in broadband deployment. This leaves internet companies open to take the blame for discrimination if any level of inequity is observed by the FCC. Bureaucracy never bodes well for progress, and this is no different. This could set back the primary goal of digital equity. These social goals outlined in the BEAD proposal are distracting— but they don't have to be.
The final proposal is not due until next year, meaning that Louisiana can still improve upon the initial proposal. This state still has the opportunity to appropriately and effectively use federal funds for the task at hand, rather than social goals or workforce programs.
The process for collecting accurate information about the state of broadband in Louisiana has just finished in December, but the current mapping of areas in need of broadband shows a state ready for connection.