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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Affordable Internet Disproportionately Impacts Minority Communities, Says Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

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Screenshot of Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks from the webinar

July 7, 2020 — “The digital divide is just one of many systematic changes we need to make,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks on a Tuesday webinar centered on achieving nationwide digital equity and inclusion.

The “digital divide” is not a new phenomenon, but one termed almost 25 years ago, Starks said.

“I wanted to introduce new language,” Starks said, adding that he prefers to use the term “internet inequality.”

Internet inequality more accurately describes the division between the broadband privileged and the deprived, as it takes into account the issue of affordability, he said.

“Urban communities are wrapped up with the cost of internet,” Starks said. “Many are being forced to consider the tradeoff between putting food on the table, paying the electricity bill or paying for internet.”

“The pandemic has made clear the disparate impacts on haves and have nots,” he added.

Starks highlighted the digital divide’s disproportionate impact on urban and minority communities, due to the financial cost of connectivity.

“Communities of color do not have the same access as their counterparts,” he said.

Starks described women and people of color as being vulnerable groups, as those demographics are overrepresented in the jobs that now have some of the highest unemployment rates, deeply impacting their sources of income.

When USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter questioned Starks about whether he believes current FCC subsidization programs are up to the task of closing the divide, Starks replied saying that “it is very difficult to create brand new programs — it makes sense to use existing programs.”

However, Starks called for expanding the existing programs, stating that urgent conditions caused by the pandemic call for the action.

“E-rate has to do more,” Starks said. “We know that there are a ton of students not connected right now.”

For example, Starks cited research finding that 90 percent of Detroit public schools’ students do not have internet connectivity.

“The Lifeline Program is also important,” Starks continued, noting the impacts that it has had on keeping individuals connected as the pandemic roars on.

Starks said he was grateful for the Keep Americans Connected Pledge but recognized that companies couldn’t “do it all on their own.”

“Broadband has to be part of the next work by Congress,” Starks said, expressing support for House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s proposed infrastructure bill, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.

“An inclusive America requires a connected America,” Starks said, echoing a long history of promoting these ideals.

Digital Inclusion

Connect20 Summit: The Crucial Role of Digital Skills Training

Digital skills are a necessary foundation for workforce development, said panelists at the Nov. 14 event.

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WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 — A panel discussion at the Connect20 Summit here on Tuesday emphasized the importance of digital skills in enhancing connectivity and ensuring equitable access to technology.

Caroline Treschitta, a policy analyst at the National Skills Coalition, underscored the necessity of foundational digital skills for workforce development. She highlighted the Coalition’s focus on lifelong upskilling and reskilling, particularly in response to labor market shifts like the pandemic. Citing statistics from Indiana, she said one digital skill could result in a 23% wage increase, or the equivalent to an additional $8,000 to $9,000 annually.

She also said that one in three youth also lack foundational digital competency.

Chrissie Powell, chief growth and impact officer at the digital skills training group Byte Back detailed the organization’s efforts at tech inclusion focused on historically marginalized communities.

Byte Back’s approach begins with basic digital literacy, such as teaching how to power on a computer and safely navigate the internet, she said, extending to more advanced skills like Microsoft Office and IT fundamentals. Powell emphasized the significance of building confidence alongside skills to overcome fear, a major barrier in technology adoption.

Graham Jackson, social media and content analyst at Human IT, spoke about the organization’s national digital equity efforts, including providing reliable devices, internet connectivity, and digital skills training. He also mentioned the non-profit’s work in integrating financial literacy into digital skills programs, illustrating the connectedness of multiple technical skills to the domain of digital inclusion.

Representing the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center, Gina Birch highlighted the organization’s work in digital literacy for seniors. The group has adapted its approach to cater to the varying skill levels of older adults. Burch also discussed the need for ongoing tech support and the evolution of training methods to keep pace with changing demographics and technological advancements.

The panelists called for increased funding and resources and emphasized that digital literacy is the bridge to workforce development as well as an integral part of social determinants of health.

The session was moderated by Yvette Scorse, communications director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. NDIA, Network On and Broadband Breakfast organized the Connect20 Summit.

To stay involved with the Digital Navigator movement, sign up at the Connect20 Summit.

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Digital Inclusion

Federal Officials Agree: Infrastructure Alone Will Not Close the Digital Divide

Officials from broadband funding programs emphasized the important of non-deployment projects at the Connect20 Summit in Washington.

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Photo of Drew Clark, Treasury Department's Joey Wender, USDA's Laurel LLeverrier, and NTIA's Sarah Morris (left to right) by Network On

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2023 – Federal officials from three broadband funding programs said on Tuesday that expanding infrastructure is not enough to close the digital divide. 

“It’s not enough to just have a line that goes to your house,” said Sarah Morris, a deputy administrator at the Commerce Department, the agency responsible for the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion program. “If you can’t afford that connection, that is not of service to you. If you don’t have the devices to connect to that line, you’re not going to be able to get online in a meaningful way.”

She spoke at the Connect20 Summit as part of a panel with officials from the Treasury Department, which administers the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund, and the Department of Agriculture, whose ReConnect program has allocated $3.3 billion to rural broadband on top of its longstanding Rural Utilities Service subsidy. Broadband Breakfast editor Drew Clark moderated the discussion.

They echoed the position of advocates who have pushed for a more comprehensive approach to expanding broadband access and adoption. 

And funding agencies seem to agree. More than $1 billion of the Treasury’s CPF funds have been allocated to projects that build community centers rather than infrastructure, and all providers are required to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, a monthly internet subsidy.

“These are places where people can congregate and digital navigators can work,” said Joey Wender, director of the CPF. Digital navigators refers to people who work to get communities acquainted with online services.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where Morris works, oversees a dedicated digital equity grant in tandem with the larger Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. The NTIA requires states to produce a digital equity plan – a plan to address broadband adoption gaps in rural and low-income communities, often through information sessions and affordability efforts – as part of the BEAD program. 

That $2.75 billion digital equity grant program is being administered in three phases: planning grants, capacity grants, and competitive grants. 

The $60 million set aside for planning grants has largely been disbursed. It’s intended to help states draft their digital equity plans. According to the NTIA, 28 states have released drafts of their plans for public comment. Final drafts are due to the NTIA within one year of receiving planning grant funds. 

Capacity grants are set to start up in 2024, with $1.44 billion being made available for states to implement the plans they draw up with planning grant funds. 

In addition to states, the $1.25 billion competitive grant program will be open to applications from nonprofits, local governments, and anchor institutions like libraries. It’s set to accept those applications after capacity grants are awarded.

To stay involved with the Digital Navigator movement, sign up at the Connect20 Summit.

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Digital Inclusion

Drew Clark: We Need Humans to Make Digital Inclusion Work

A core component of Americans — about 20 percent — are not connected to the benefits of better broadband.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast

Humans still matter.

In the age of digital automation and personalized AI agents, this simple truth may be the most surprising fact of the burgeoning movement for digital navigators.

Today (and tomorrow), we’re excited to be a part of the Connect20 Summit here in Washington and online. Together with Network:On and the National Digital Inclusion AllianceBroadband Breakfast has helped to gather the key leaders in this space for this free event here in Washington.

It’s not too late to participate online. In fact, we invite you to view the event page and sign up for Free Zoom Registration. You’ll also receive access to the videos of each of today’s sessions.

Listening to Angela Siefer

In the lead-up to the event, I had to chance to catch up with Angela Siefer, executive director of the NDIA. She’s a leader in the digital equity movement, and has done so much to define this field that we now call “digital inclusion.”

“Technology is not going to solve the digital divide” without people involved, said Siefer. “There is a necessity of a human” who can guide or navigate those who need help managing technology and the internet.

Think of it this way: Will our nation enable digital adoption through better broadband access, or through more affordable internet connections? The answer, of course, is both/all. Access, affordability and adoption must work together.

Siefer says, referencing the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides a $30/month subsidy to lower-income internet users, “If we had only ACP and no digital navigators, we wouldn’t make much progress. If we had only classes in front of an instructor, that wouldn’t work either.”

The last few years have prompted a groundswell of understanding, Siefer said, about the role of digital mediators, i.e, “a person who can help you with your digital needs.”

The Connect20 Summit will discuss the role of these persons that we call digital navigators.

Why Connect20?

The Connect20 Summit is built around the understanding that a core component of Americans — about 20 percent — that are NOT connected to the benefits available through broadband internet services.

In a blog post last year, officials at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration highlighted the fact that “internet access means access to education, healthcare, jobs, and entertainment. It’s essential to full participation in our modern economy,” wrote the authors, Michelle Cao and Rafi Goldberg.

“Still, NTIA data show that about one in five U.S. households are not connected to the Internet at home,” they write, citing barriers that range from cost to access to no computer to a lack of interest or awareness.

The NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is one important initiative to make sure all Americans are connected to affordable broadband; the ACP program administered by the Federal Communications Commission is another. Both are enabled by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed two years ago tomorrow.

But what does this mean for digital navigators?

From a stool to a ladder

Previous discussions about digital inclusion often centered around a metaphor of a “stool” that included access, affordability and adoption.

But Siefer said that we now realize there is a better paradigm. It is a digital ladder or pathway with about five steps:

The first is affordable connectivity itself. This presumes access to broadband, but it also includes making individuals aware of ACP and helping them sign up for it.

Second is the role of appropriate digital devices. Lots of work that needs to be done in this space because of a surfeit of low-quality computing equipment that’s become too prevalent since the pandemic, said Siefer.

Third are digital skills. This is where digital navigators really shine. They guide the disconnected by understanding their needs and empathizing with what they must learn and where they want to go.

Fourth is tech support. This is generally more specific to devices that have stopped working. “If you have resources, you go to your Genius Bar,” quipped Siefer. “If you don’t have resources, the device gathers dust.”

Fifth are applications. Interestingly, this can mean “application” in the sense of something like an application for benefits or an unemployment application. Or it could mean a software application that someone is trying to use for the first time. While NDIA doesn’t focus on specific applications, someone who has been trained by a digital navigator will have the confidence to get answers to their digital dilemmas.

Better Broadband, Better Lives

The confluence of the IIJA’s provisions to promote broadband equity, access and deployment present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to connect these 20% of Americans who don’t subscribe to home broadband.

Digital navigators are indeed the key to helping all American get on this pathway.

Our motto at Broadband Breakfast is “Better Broadband, Better Lives.” We’re passionate about this topic not just because we want better broadband. But it’s also because – with the help of digital navigators – we want to see everyone on the ladder of opportunity that leads to better lives.

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