NTIA head recaps a year of Internet for All progress

Almost exactly one year since the federal government launched its Internet for All initiative, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Alan Davidson briefed House committees on the progress made so far in bridging the digital divide. 

“We have been talking about the digital divide in this country for more than 20 years. But thanks to the bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and other funding programs, we now have the resources to do something serious about it,” Davidson told members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Davidson touted the Internet for All initiative’s success thus far, noting that in the past year every state and eligible territory has applied to participate in both the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and the Digital Equity Planning Grant program.  

By the end of last year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) had issued more than $307 million in BEAD and Digital Equity planning grants to all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. 

“The development of these plans is critical given that at its core, BEAD is a state and territory grant program,” Davidson said. “And supporting states and territories in that effort is our Internet for All team’s primary focus for the remainder of this year.” 

The NTIA now has one Federal Program Officer in each state and territory to support local officials as they navigate federal grant programs.

NTIA shells out billions in broadband grants

While many states are still in the planning stages, Davidson said NTIA has also been funding projects that can get “shovels in the ground and devices in people’s hands quickly.”

He lauded the NTIA’s focus on bringing funding to some of the least connected areas in the country and where funding “is needed most.”

Specifically, 157 grants totaling more than $1.77 billion have been awarded in the last 18 months through the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, serving 230 tribal governments for broadband deployment and affordability on tribal lands, telehealth, distance learning and digital inclusion activities. 

In the same timeframe nearly $263 million in Connecting Minority Communities grants have been awarded to 93 historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, minority serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities. 

The NTIA will announce awards in its $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program “in the coming months,” according to Davidson, which he said will support deployment of high-capacity national and regional networks and lower the cost of the last mile networks states can use to connect homes and small businesses.

NTIA received 262 applications requesting nearly $7.5 billion in funding for that program. 

Internet policy a priority as AI, privacy concerns emerge 

The NTIA is concerned with both domestic and international internet policy as privacy has emerged as a “pressing issue,” Davidson said.

“Americans are concerned about how their personal data is collected and used online,” he added, noting the Biden-Harris Administration has been pushing for federal privacy law that sets clear standards for data sovereignty.

“We know there are few areas where the consequences of these practices are more starkly felt than in violations of the privacy and security of marginalized or underserved communities,” Davidson added. To address this, NTIA earlier this year issued a Request for Comment on how the organization can increase vigilance “at the intersection of privacy and civil rights,” through analyzing the outsized consequences that data practices can have on marginalized groups and make specific recommendations on solutions.

Davidson also pointed to the growth of artificial intelligence systems as another poignant issue, and called for responsible AI innovation that addresses its risks and harms.

The NTIA issued a separate request for comment to collect public feedback to support the development of “audits, assessments and other mechanisms to create earned trust in AI systems.”