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Digital Inclusion

‘Senior 2 Senior’ Program of Pennsylvania Co-op Helps Older Americans Adopt Broadband, Adapt to Coronavirus

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Photo of Tri-Co’s Bill Gerski at a Seniors 2 Seniors class courtesy Jim Fetzer/Tri-County REC

June 5, 2020 — Tri-Co Connections, a subsidiary of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, has taken the rural digital divide in Pennsylvania into its own hands through not only fiber broadband buildout but community collaboration and a hands-on class for senior citizens.

According to Bill Gerski, senior vice president of business development for Tri-Co, no one was previously willing to build broadband infrastructure in northern Pennsylvania because it was not economically sensible.

Tri-Co applied for government grants in counties that can service only about 5.8 houses per mile. So far, the company has raised $51 million of what it deems will be a $77 million project.

Gerski estimated that it will take about five years to provide service to seven rural Pennsylvania counties with fiber broadband, extending about 3,000 miles.

However, Gerski noted two potential adoption issues. First, 42 percent are “seasonals,” meaning they solely come to northern Pennsylvania for vacation and do not live there full-time. Second, more than 40 percent of the targeted area is made up of senior citizens, who might not connect due to limited digital literacy.

They also might have the “fear of being reeducated,” Gerski said, as learning how to connect to broadband and use a computer can be a daunting task for those who do not have experience using 21st century technology.

Bridging the digital literacy gap for seniors

After consulting with community stakeholders, Tri-Co decided to start a program with Potter County to bridge the digital literacy gap for seniors.

The community came together to support the endeavor. Banks donated money to buy computers and other equipment in order to promote online banking in the older demographic.

“The area high school students are a logical resource to support the senior citizens as they learn about the Internet since this generation of students has grown up with technology as a part of their daily lives,” the Tri-Co website said of the program, dubbed Seniors 2 Seniors. “They are a true ‘tech-savvy’ population and can provide valuable support to older adults who are learning to navigate and use new technological skills and information.”

Tri-Co identified six services that seniors were missing out on without the ability to use a computer: connecting with family through Skype or other programs, telemedicine, online government resources, shopping, online employment and improved cognitive functions (mental sharpness and hand-eye coordination).

Applications for broadband also include telemedicine

Jim Kockler, Potter County’s administrator of human services, told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in August that not only will the program help senior citizens to communicate with loved ones who live far away via Skype or FaceTime, it will also teach them to use telemedicine, order their prescriptions or pay their bills online.

The announcement of the first class in Potter County drew interest from about 40 seniors, but there was only room for 25, said Gerski.

During hour-long weekly sessions, senior citizens and high school seniors gather in a senior center for mentored internet classes.

“It’s a hands-on program led by an instructor who has vast experience in the field of information technology,” Potter County Education Council Executive Director Dr. Michele Moore explained to Tri-Co. “Additionally, the seniors are being supported in the classroom by senior high school students who have an interest in and experience with computers and technology.”

The young teachers began with preliminary skills such as understanding a keyboard and creating passwords.

Gerski called the eight-week-long course a huge success and said he plans to implement it in the other six counties where Tri-Co is building fiber broadband.

“A lot of times, our senior citizens hear all this negative stuff about the internet, but they don’t hear enough about the positive benefits,” Moore said.

Gerski said it was rewarding to guide a senior through the basics of computer use and then watch them use Skype to talk with their grandkids.

“Now they can go to Amazon and order stuff,” said Gerski. “They couldn’t do that before, and a lot of them live alone.”

‘I don’t want to get left behind,’ pleads one senior in the online course

“I don’t want to get left behind,” a 94-year old student in the course said.

For another Senior 2 Senior student, 68-year old Carol Cole, the computer classes could not have come at a better time. Shortly after completing the training, Cole was forced to hunker down at home to avoid contagion from the coronavirus.

Her technological lifeline was email, a skill she relearned and improved during Senior 2 Senior.

“Knowing more and doing more on the computer is important, especially through crises like this,” said Cole.

Before the Senior 2 Senior training, Cole said she felt stuck trying to learn new skills on the computer. Now she knows how to email, Facebook, online shop, and online bank.

Cole lamented that older adults tend to be afraid“to try new things on a computer. “Working with the senior class was fun,” said Cole. “The kids were energetic.”

The seniors who complete the course receive a certificate and a free installation and free first month of broadband service from Tri-Co.

“If I would have run fiber before teaching them how to use a computer, I would have just had a house that didn’t take any service,” Gerski said.

The ultimate goal, Gerski said, is to provide broadband service and encourage the youth to eventually move back to the area and increase economic development in rural Pennsylvania.

Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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Digital Inclusion

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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