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Broadband's Impact

Debra Berlyn: A Tale of Two Seniors in the Age of the Coronavirus

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Photo courtesy of Debra Berlyn

Broadband and technology devices are most certainly game changers is this age of COVID-19.

For the older adult community, the benefits of innovation have opened incredible opportunities. For some of our seniors, technology has made an incredible, perhaps life-saving difference during this crisis. However, there are many striking “haves and have-nots” within the senior community. Offering tremendous benefits and opportunities, it is critical that technology reach more within our older adult population.

Here is a real tale of two seniors, providing an example of what is currently represented within the aging community:

Shirley is a 96-year-old woman living in an independent living facility. Before COVID-19, she was extremely social and engaged in her community, having frequent meals around town with her friends and family.

Post pandemic, she is confined to her apartment, has meals delivered, can only leave to walk in a defined area around the back of the building, and can only interact with a limited number of workers in her building. She doesn’t have broadband, and her only “device” is her old wireless phone, used to connect by voice to loved ones.

Ron is a 78-year-old man living in his own home, retired but still continuing to do some consulting work that has him chatting throughout the day with colleagues on Skype. He’s comfortable on his home computer (with high-speed broadband access) and on his smartphone, which has Bluetooth connectivity directly to his hearing aids.

During this pandemic, he spends more time video chatting with his extended family and playing games with his grandkids over an SMS platform.

Both Ron and Shirley are confined to their homes, but Ron is connected to family and friends and continues to maintain his usual lifestyle, while Shirley is isolated and has a greatly diminished quality of life. The difference is broadband and all of the innovative devices broadband enables. While Ron is connected to a variety of devices at home, there are many more tech innovations that older adults can experience today.

Pandemic provides opportunity for older Americans to explore broadband devices

This pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to explore the vast array of technology that is available today to enhance aging in America. 

In addition to the home computer, smart phone and tablet, another valuable innovation for seniors is the virtual assistant, enabled with artificial intelligence – such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. According to a recent national survey by AARP, 2020 Tech Trends of the 50+ , ownership of virtual assistants is growing.

In 2019, 18 percent of those 60-69 owned one of these devices and 12 percent of those age 70+ had one in their home. In addition to playing music, this device can provide information on the weather, daily news updates, answer questions, turn lights on and off, and perform many other functions. The particular of AI is continuous learning on the part of the device to better meet the needs, preferences, and interests of its user.

Wearable devices, such as fitness and health trackers, are another technology beneficial for the health and welfare of seniors. While we may not be able to maintain our usual activities, there are opportunities to get out and walk and track our steps or take online fitness classes indoors. These devices typically link to smart health apps that may also monitor blood pressure and heart rate.

In some cases, these apps will even communicate this information to a health provider. Adoption rates are growing for wearables as well, with 16 percent of those 60-69 and 11 percent age 70+ now using these tech devices.

Smart home technologies also offers tremendous benefits to older Americans

Let’s not forget Smart Home technology, also offering tremendous benefits for older adults. Advanced safety and security features include smart thermostats and video “doorbells.”

While video doorbells have become extremely popular with all homeowners, there’s a great advantage for an older senior to see who is at the door and speak to that person without having to leave the bedroom. Home appliances, small and large, are getting smart as well, offering benefits for those older individuals wanting to age in place.

These are just some of the tech options that Ron can add to his portfolio today, to build a “smarter” home and enhance his daily life. For Shirley, her needs are very basic to connect her with family and reduce the isolation during this critical time.

Technology innovations can rewrite this “tale of two seniors” and build a brighter technology present for all older adults.

To truly build this tech future, we must extend the availability of broadband to all aging adults and ensure that there is investment in advanced high-speed networks to continue to enable innovation to flourish.

 Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL) and president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace.

Debra Berlyn serves as the Executive Director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the President of Consumer Policy Solutions. Ms. Berlyn is a seasoned veteran of telecommunications and consumer policy issues and an advocate for consumers of technology services. She represented AARP on the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several Internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns.

Broadband's Impact

Multilingual Digital Navigators Crucial For Inclusion

Digital liaisons who speak multiple languages can help guide multilingual communities for the digital future.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from the Net Inclusion webinar

April 19, 2021 – Encouraging multilingualism among digital navigators will help facilitate better inclusion in digital adoption, experts said last week.

Speaking Spanish is a huge plus for digital navigators in Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, as many of its focused neighborhoods needing to be connected to broadband speak the language,  said Shauna McNiven Edson, digital inclusion coordinator at Salt Lake City Public Library.

Edson and other panelists spoke last Wednesday at the 2021 Net Inclusion Webinar Series hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a digital inclusion advocacy group on what skills are needed to become a digital navigator.

At the Salt Lake City Public Library, progress is there but challenges persist for digital inclusion and navigation. Edson said there were about 450 participants in its library program’s group for digital inclusion. However, only about 5 percent of participants, or 22 people, have adequate broadband at home. Seventy-five percent of members said they needed help finding a computer or internet-enabled deice, and 10 percent of its 450 members have contacted the library’s support staff for It issues.

Digital navigators are crucial because they connect community members with the skills and resources they need to become digitally literate and help them get adequate broadband. Navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, health, and more who offer remote and socially distant in-person guidance. 

Compared to the rest of the country, Salt Lake City is highly connected, said Edson. Every community has a unique demographic make-up, and if the communities who need access to broadband mostly speak Spanish or English or even Mandarin, there should be community anchors with highly trained digital navigators to help the underconnected.

Andrew Au, director of operations at Digital Charlotte, said digital inclusion should include adult education. Every library and public institution that offers internet services should have digital navigators available and onsite to guide individuals in their communities and offer continuing education resources to keep digital skills literacy up, he said.

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Broadband's Impact

Mentorship Instrumental To Women Involvement in Telecom Industry

Experts advise mentorship and encouragement to get more women in the industry.

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Mitsuko Herrera, center, via Montgomery County, Maryland

April 19, 2021 – A group of women were asked to rate gender equality in their workplace on a scale of 1-10. Their average score? About a four. The solution? More mentorship early in their lives.

The women, experts in network companies, spoke at the event, “Women in Broadband: Achieving zero barriers,” hosted by fiber network company Render Networks last Wednesday.

Kari Kump, director of network services at Mammoth Networks, said that in the broadband industry, she rates it a four, and in government jobs, a bit higher at five. Kump said she sees lots of women in marketing positions and non-technical managerial positions that “may oversee tech.” She said the worst gender equality in her view is at the construction site, where women “pay the bills” in the office rather than being out on site.

What’s causing gender inequality? The problem starts long before the job interview. Mitsuko Herrera, from planning and special projects for Montgomery County, said in her current work, only 2 out of 25 colleagues are women.

“The opportunity may be there, but we don’t see a lot of qualified women in the industry,” she said. Even before they reach college, women and girls need to have opportunities for engagement across various industries. Having mentors at an early age would greatly increase women participation and influence at work. In the workspace, praising women privately is just as important as praising them publicly, said Herrera. Women need to know they are supported at all times with all people.

Having better representation at the table is crucial because diverse perspectives affect industry and society for the better, said Laura Smith, vice president of people and culture at Biarri Networks. “The groups making decisions should reflect society,” she said.

And even if there is diversity, it’s not enough to have women at work for diversity’s sake—you also need to listen to that diversity and not ignore it.

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Broadband's Impact

Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

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