2024 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Francine E. Alkisswani, Ph.D.

Advocated for and implemented a federal program to promote historically Black colleges and universities as innovation hubs that bridge the digital divide for underserved communities.

Historically Black colleges and universities and their surrounding communities are often at a disadvantage caused by the digital divide, cut off from access and advancements in education, telehealth, banking and business, or from simply connecting with loved ones. 

Francine Alkisswani, a telecommunications policy analyst at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has advocated for HBCUs to be critical local broadband deployment hubs, resulting in federal strategies and funding to make this transformation possible.  

“She always had the passion for helping vulnerable populations with a specific focus on the HBCUs,” said Laura Spining, NTIA director of broadband infrastructure. “She’s been able to stay focused on fixing this problem, especially in the world of digital equity for broadband.” 

Left behind 

HBCUs are an often neglected and historically underfunded facet of the American higher-education system.  

“For over 150 years, HBCUs have been under-resourced, undervalued and discriminated against,” said Dietra Trent, executive director of a White House Initiative on HBCUs. “So, for instance, if there was funding for technology or expanding broadband, it is likely that those grants would have gone to an MIT or John Hopkins or somewhere like that.” 

While on detail to the White House Initiative on HBCUs in 2018-2019, Alkisswani established an interagency working group on the HBCU issue. This group has worked to ensure that HBCUs develop and deploy campus-wide broadband infrastructure, extend broadband access and applications to their host communities and use broadband infrastructure investment as a catalyst for job growth and economic development that strengthens HBCU competitiveness. 

“My passion, my purpose in life, is to ensure that HBCUs have the ability to deploy broadband on their campuses so that they continue to graduate students who are leaders in the fields of the 21st century, that they’re not impotent bystanders and that those institutions ensure that their surrounding communities have broadband to solve the issue of digital destitution,” Alkisswani said. 

Alkisswani started at NTIA in 1993 working on the Technologies Opportunity Program, established by Congress, which awarded matching grants to provide telecommunications to underserved groups, focusing primarily on connecting HBCUs. 

The program was eliminated in 2005, but Alkisswani continued her mission, developing the concept for the Minority Broadband Initiative launched in 2019. She developed a framework for dialogue, policy recommendations and strategic goals. She also established an HBCU leaders network and initiated a community of practice with the 12 HBCUs in North Carolina and eight in South Carolina for sharing best practices with the leadership of those institutions. 

Connecting Congress 

Congressional members who knew that similar communities in their states were being left behind started taking note of the Minority Broadband Initiative. 

Aided by NTIA’s congressional affairs team, which brought in Alkisswani for her expertise, Congress included legislation in a December 2020 appropriations bill that established the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives. It also provided $268 million in funding for the Connecting Minority Communities pilot program, which awards grants to HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions. 

Douglas Kinkoph, NTIA Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth associate administrator, said Alkisswani’s persistence was a critical driver in establishing the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives.  

Since its inception, the NTIA pilot program has awarded 93 grants totaling $262 million—43 of which went to HBCUs, enabling them to acquire broadband services, equipment and professional training and bringing much-needed resources to more than 228,000 current HBCU students and their surrounding communities. The 93 total grants reach areas encompassing more than 153 million households, nearly all of which are at 250% of the poverty threshold. 

Alkisswani, 82, continues to work on these programs and bridging the digital divide. She has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. 

“This is what I work for and will until I can’t do it anymore—the inclusion of all Americans to be a part of the fourth industrial revolution that we’re living in,” she said.