May 25, 2022
Today, New America’s Open Technology Institute and the Philanthropication thru Privatization (PtP) project released Towards a Digital Equity Foundation: Best Practices for Best Practices for Governance, Accountability, and Transparency for Foundations Established with Public Assets for the establishment and governance of a federally funded Digital Equity Foundation. This paper is a follow-up to a joint concept note released by New America and the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies in April 2021, which proposed that Congress dedicate a share of proceeds from future auctions of licenses to use the public airwaves (spectrum) to endow a foundation to make sustainable investments in digital literacy, inclusion, and affordability.
The concept of a Digital Equity Foundation funded with future auction proceeds is supported by the Airwaves for Equity coalition. Initially launched in February by nine prominent national organizations, 75 additional organizations have since endorsed the concept and legislation to implement the idea is likely to be introduced in the coming months.
This new paper explores the need for a Digital Equity Foundation, options and best practices for its potential structure, governance, and the benefits such a foundation could bring to the public. The paper details, among other key points:
- The foundation could provide sustainable, responsive funding for community-based digital inclusion activities. Funds could benefit a wide range of programs, including “digital navigators,” affordable access, rural telehealth initiatives, accessibility, skills training for veterans and the elderly, and education technology that helps to close the “homework gap.”
- There is a precedent for this type of federally funded foundation. Examples include the FirstNet Public Safety Network Trust Fund that Congress established in 2012 with $7.5 billion in auction revenue, the California Emerging Technology Fund, and the eleven existing “agency-sponsored” foundations, such as the CDC Foundation and the National Parks Foundation.
- The foundation should be structured to maximize transparency and efficiency. The foundation should be established as a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation and follow best practice requirements for transparency and public accountability—including: a clear and focused mission statement; governance by an accountable board of directors; mechanisms for federal agency oversight, and reporting to Senate and House Commerce Committees; and establishment of robust community advisory mechanisms.
- The foundation’s governing board and community advisory committee should represent diverse stakeholders. The foundation’s governing board must reflect a balance of expertise and diversity (including geographic diversity) that reinforces the foundation’s mission to promote digital inclusion and equity in communities nationwide. Likewise, the community advisory committee should represent a broad cross-section of beneficiaries, digital equity providers, civil rights groups, and others likely to be impacted by the foundation’s work.
"Equitable access to digital resources is essential for full participation in our economy and society, but for too many, this is not reality," said Chris Cardona, senior program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. "By building upon decades of experience and research about effective and responsible philanthropic practice, the Digital Equity Foundation holds immense promise to help overcome digital equity and adoption challenges, towards a more just and equal society for all."
“A federally funded Digital Equity Foundation isn’t a radical concept. Rather, it’s a common-sense policy solution to a longstanding national problem,” said Chuck Bell, a project associate for the PtP Project, and author of the report. “This proposed foundation would meet vital community needs, fit with longstanding legal precedents, and provide sustainable national funding to bridge the digital divide for millions of underserved Americans.”
“Last year Congress appropriated more than $60 billion to build broadband networks in unserved areas and to help make internet service more affordable. This is critical, but without sustained investments in digital literacy and adoption efforts at the community level, it won’t close the digital divide,” said Michael Calabrese, Director, New America’s Wireless Future Project. “If Americans don’t know how to use technology, our efforts to connect them are fruitless. A foundation dedicated to this work and funded by future spectrum auctions provides a sustainable way to tackle this part of the digital divide.”
Since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began auctioning licenses to use the public airwaves in 1994, more than $230 billion has flowed to the Treasury. In the next five years, auctions could raise $30-50 billion or more. The FCC’s auction authority expires at the end of the current fiscal year, which creates an immediate opportunity for Congress to ensure that a substantial share of future auction revenues are dedicated to endow the proposed Digital Equity Foundation and advance the cause of digital inclusion and literacy into the future.