A Bold Vision for Digital Access & Equity in the Rocky Mountain State

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, March 15, 2024

As Colorado implements new federal Digital Equity Act and Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding, the state is making bold choices that solidify its position as one of the national leaders in digital inclusion policy. The Rocky Mountain State originally staked out its territory with a 2020 gubernatorial executive order (updated in 2021) that led to the development of a wide-ranging Digital Equity Framework, among numerous other accomplishments. (Members of NSC’s Skills2Compete Colorado coalition were part of the subcommittee that developed that framework.)

This spring, as $42 billion in federal BEAD and Digital Equity funding begins to roll out to states, skills advocates can borrow from Colorado’s example and encourage their own broadband offices to take similar approaches to close the digital skill divide.

Colorado’s draft 5-year Digital Access Plan (which fulfills federal requirements for a State Digital Equity Plan) was released along with summaries in 10 languages, making it easier for the state’s 550,000 immigrant and refugee residents to provide input alongside their US-born neighbors. Colorado officials also used small-scale vendor contacts to great effect, contracting with trusted community-based organizations to ensure meaningful outreach and engagement with the various covered populations under the Act.

The state also drew on NSC’s Closing the Digital Skills Divide research to document the demand for digital skills among Colorado employers, and connect the dots to the state’s broader economic and workforce development goals.

On the broadband side of the house, the state’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Initial Proposal (Vol. II) provides a notably more detailed workforce section than many peer states. Colorado will be receiving $826 million in BEAD funds, which will primarily go toward the building of new fiber-optic networks and related activities to support high-speed internet access and adoption. While every state is required to describe how it will ensure a sufficient number of trained and qualified workers to implement this ambitious initiative, states such as Colorado are farther along in their analysis and preparation.

Building momentum by coordinating with existing state plans

Colorado’s efforts to ensure coordination start with the two major arms of broadband and digital equity work themselves: A representative from the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) sits in on weekly digital equity planning meetings, while the state’s digital equity manager in turn attends CBO staff meetings. The offices also cross-promote each other’s stakeholder engagement opportunities and other announcements. “Having that [mutual] awareness about what teams are doing has been really crucial,” says Colorado Office of the Future of Work Director Katherine Keegan, who is overseeing the work of the digital equity team.

But coordination goes far beyond just broadband and digital equity officials. The state’s digital equity team reviewed 17 plans from other Colorado agencies – including public safety, aging, and health – to identify areas of alignment with the Digital Access Plan. In the short term, this approach makes it easier to accelerate progress towards digital equity goals by connecting to the momentum already underway in other agencies. In the longer term, having digital equity activities authentically embedded across a variety of state programs and services helps to ensure an ongoing commitment to sustaining them.

Section 2.2 and Appendix D of the state’s Plan describes those areas of overlap, specifically calling out the state’s Perkins Career and Technical Education plan and its Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plan, including both workforce and adult education components. Also highlighted is the Colorado Workforce Development Council and its three primary strategies: Career pathways, work-based learning, and sector strategies.

Drawing explicit connections between digital equity, education, and workforce development goals helps solidify the understanding that these are mutually reinforcing efforts – and that, for example, making sure unemployed workers have affordable internet and the chance to build digital skills is a win-win for the governor’s goals around economic empowerment and internet access. Making these connections also lays the groundwork for future partnerships among state agencies and the possibility of securing additional resources to help workers and learners.

Tapping into established networks to speed up outreach and obtain more useful feedback

The state’s digital equity team used a variety of mechanisms to gather input from state residents. This included conducting a digital access survey as well as adding digital inclusion-related questions to existing state surveys (as described in an earlier NSC blog post). The state contracted with a translation company to translate the survey into a number of languages, enabling them to reach residents who are not yet fluent in English.

A particularly valuable strategy was to provide small vendor contracts to nonprofit community-based organizations to conduct additional data-gathering among the populations they serve, such as immigrants and refugees. This recognized the longstanding relationships that nonprofits have worked to develop with community members, and saved state officials from trying to accomplish years of trust-building in a few short months.

The payoff in being able to reach additional residents was clear, says Melanie Colletti, the state’s Digital Equity Manager. “We got lots of comments [from residents] that ‘If this nonprofit wasn’t hosting a listening session, I would never have come’ to a session hosted by a government agency.”

Responses like that affirmed Colletti’s efforts to make the contracting process as painless as possible in order to attract more community-based organizations. “We have a little form that is used to evaluate whether a payment should be issued as a grant versus a contract,” she says. “We looked at the [modest] amount of money and the simple deliverables, and we realized we could do it as a contract. It’s very simple,” and less administratively burdensome for the nonprofits.

Once contracts were awarded, Colletti discovered another step she could take to smooth the way. “One thing I learned from our meetings [with nonprofit stakeholders] was how confusing the funding could be to people on the receiving end,” she says. “So I made a template in Excel that streamlined all of the information that vendors had to submit to our fiscal folks. That way, they only had to enter vital information like their organization’s name, address, and deliverables accomplished.”

The surprising role of reassurance in procurement policy

One unexpected development was the discovery that fellow state officials initially assumed that digital equity and broadband funds would have the same reporting requirements as federal coronavirus relief funds, and were concerned about the administrative paperwork required.

“They had dealt with State and Local Relief Funds (SLRF) under the American Rescue Plan Act, but not Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding,” says Keegan. “[But] once we got it nailed down,” and communicated how much more straightforward the IIJA digital equity funds were, “it was fast and easy.”

At a time when many state and local government agencies are facing staffing shortages in fiscal oversight roles, this insight is vital. State digital equity leaders working with newer or less experienced finance officials can take a page from Colorado’s book and make sure their colleagues have accurate information about what is and is not required under federal procurement rules.

Doing so can help get federal dollars out the door faster – and ultimately help achieve the bigger-picture broadband and digital equity goals that states are working toward. “Our capacity to do anything is [underpinned] by sound fiscal infrastructure,” says Keegan bluntly.

Making detailed plans for a broadband workforce

Meanwhile, on the BEAD side of the equation, the Colorado Broadband Office worked with the state Department of Labor and Employment and the Colorado Workforce Development Council to develop a broadband workforce plan. (Highlights are included as part of the Digital Access Plan, but the full 38-page document is Appendix I of the State’s BEAD Initial Proposal, Volume II).

Significantly, state officials combined multiple data analyses from different sources to generate their projections about workforce needs. This approach allowed the state to benefit from multiple perspectives, a principle which also drove the state’s decision to bring together business, workforce, organized labor, and other stakeholders to help shape its proposed strategy.

Colorado’s workforce strategy has four primary components:

  • Raise awareness of telecommunications and broadband [career] pathways
  • Evaluate and scale promising [existing] training and job placement programs in telecommunications and construction industries
  • Pilot and evaluate [new] training and job placement programs
  • Embed telecommunications into workforce infrastructure

Notably, state officials are frank about both the assets represented by the state’s strong education and workforce systems, and the challenge of rapidly increasing the talent pipeline in an industry that has not traditionally been as embedded in those systems as other industries. Indeed, compared to sectors such as manufacturing or healthcare, the telecommunications industry has been relatively overlooked by workforce and education stakeholders nationwide over the past few decades. Colorado’s recognition of this reality puts the state in a better position to overcome this challenge in the months ahead.

Getting down to brass tacks: finding funding

CBO’s analysis anticipates a gap of nearly 4,000 workers needed to build broadband infrastructure over the next five years. Importantly, in addition to BEAD funding itself, the state’s plan identifies ten additional funding streams that can support broadband workforce training, such as:

  • Scale Up Grants: Up to $50,000 to launch or expand a registered apprenticeship program in Colorado.
  • Next Gen Sector Partnerships: These are partnerships of companies from the same industry in a shared labor market region that work with education, workforce development, economic development and community organizations to tackle common needs of the targeted industry. They primarily focus on the education and workforce training needs of an industry, but Next Gen partnerships also focus on other issues related to an industry’s competitiveness.
  • Skill Advance Colorado: The Skill Advance Colorado Job Training Grant helps businesses and nonprofits create customized job training for employees.

What is important about these examples is that they illustrate the whole-of-government approach that the state wants to take to meet its ambitious broadband goals. The programs highlighted above and the others mentioned in the state’s plan are housed in numerous different departments and agencies and are funded by a variety of sources, with distinct authorizing legislation and oversight mechanisms. By identifying all of them as potential assets in building its broadband workforce, the state is signaling its awareness that myriad contributions will be necessary to achieve its vision.

The bottom line: What others can learn from Colorado

Skills advocates across the country who are involved in the implementation of their own states’ BEAD and Digital Equity Plans can take inspiration from the Rocky Mountain State.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of “unsexy” topics like fiscal infrastructure in making things happen
  • Invest in community-based partners – those who have already earned trust of state residents — as force multipliers
  • Keep the lines of communication open, both inside state government and with external stakeholders
  • As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” To go far in reaching ambitious broadband and digital equity goals, design processes that bring stakeholders together in meaningful collaboration.