father and son looking at laptop computer

Shrinking the Digital Divide with a Broadband Equity Platform

By Denise Schiavone

Our user-friendly platform provides a consolidated view into states’ current broadband adoption landscape. The tool could help decision-makers forge real progress in solving a decades-old digital equity problem—and create meaningful change for vulnerable populations.

When it comes to social inequalities in the U.S., the digital divide is one of the most glaring. Approximately 20 million Americans lack high-speed internet access—access that’s critical for health and wellness, education, job opportunities, and much more.

A host of historical, institutional, and economic factors contribute to disparities in the U.S. broadband infrastructure. With “digital redlining,” for instance, internet service providers tend to underinvest in less-profitable low-income and rural areas.

The pandemic exacerbated such inequities. But it’s far from a new problem—and initiatives to address it aren’t new either.

What’s new is the $65 billion commitment of funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The legislation focuses particularly on improving digital equity for vulnerable groups, or “covered populations": people with disabilities, veterans, aging populations, and racial and ethnic minorities, among others.

States can apply for part of this huge windfall to help their vulnerable populations. But with broadband-adoption data scattered across disparate sources—and dedicated resources for digital equity often scarce—how do states even know where to begin?

Under our independent R&D program, MITRE created an intelligence platform called BroadbandEQUIP. Designed to help states develop impactful, legislatively compliant digital equity plans, it provides easy-to-digest data, including:

  • Baseline assessments of each covered population’s digital equity experience
  • Identification of the greatest barriers to digital equity for each covered population
  • Predictions of how specific digital equity improvement measures impact a state’s economic, health, and educational outcomes (to be added to future releases)

“We designed the platform so that when states apply for federal funding, even if they have no existing broadband adoption effort, they can hit the ground running,” says MITRE’s Anna Grabek, one of the research leads for BroadbandEQUIP.

Veering Off Course to Create Meaningful Change

Grabek started her research efforts under MITRE’s Early Career Research Program, which encourages early-career professionals to pursue promising research in various disciplines. A signal analysis engineer, she initially focused on how to improve the technical communications and signals components of broadband adoption.

We designed the platform so that when states apply for federal funding...they can hit the ground running.

MITRE’s Anna Grabek, research co-lead for BroadbandEQUIP

After collaborating with others across the company working on digital equity, different priorities materialized, and the effort became more cross-disciplinary. Ultimately, Grabek translated her skills analyzing the signals spectrum to analyze patterns in economic and social data—data that impacts real people in real communities throughout the nation.     

As a trusted adviser, MITRE brings a history of connecting stakeholders across the public and private sectors to collate data—and maximize its usefulness. The COVID-19 Dashboard, for example, helped inform critical decisions around managing hospital capacity, nonpharmaceutical interventions, and community reopening.

BroadbandEQUIP provides a similarly free, publicly available platform for decision-makers to make sense of massive amounts of data. Its simple color coding and other user-friendly features allow states to view their current broadband adoption landscape, assess trends and gaps, and develop a plan for making meaningful progress.

A Starting Point to Help Shrink The Divide

While a few states have agencies or offices dedicated to broadband adoption, many operate with few to no resources in this area.

Take Texas, for example, which must implement a digital equity plan for a population of roughly 30 million people. MITRE researchers collaborated with the three-person team assigned to this huge undertaking and confirmed the original research theory: the critical need for consolidated data to help the people on the ground help those who need it most.

BroadbandEQUIP analyzes data on various covered populations, like non-English speakers. It interprets the data and ranks the top barriers to digital equity for that group. Those might include a lack of internet in the home, no access to devices, or inadequate knowledge of how to use devices for things like email, banking, and accessing government benefits.

“We originally intended this tool to help states acquire funding,” Grabek explains. “But as the idea matured, we realized its greater potential impact in providing a baseline assessment that states can use to measure progress against—and make informed, data-driven decisions.”

MITRE previously identified the importance of broadband access to help achieve broader health equity, in our call for a national strategy for digital health. Such whole-of-nation efforts align with our equity lens as we work to solve problems for a safer world.

“I’m excited by this platform’s potential to serve as a starting point for the people working hard to develop and implement these digital equity plans,” Grabek says. “We hope to make their jobs easier, so they can create the kind of change to really impact people’s lives.”

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