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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.

Adrienne Patton was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. She studied English rhetoric and writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She grew up in a household of journalists in South Florida. Her father, the late Robes Patton, was a sports writer for the Sun-Sentinel who covered the Miami Heat, and is for whom the press lounge in the American Airlines Arena is named.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents

Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.

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Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”

Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”

This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.

Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.

“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.

These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.

Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide

Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.

Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.

But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.

The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.

Amy Huffman, Munirih Jester, Paolo Balboa, Miles Miller

In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.

Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.

Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.

This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.

In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.

As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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