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Digital Inclusion

Broadband and Education Policy Needs a Rethink in the Biden-Harris Administration, Say Panelists

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Screenshot from the webinar

November 10, 2020 – Broadband needs to be central to efforts to improve education in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, educators and experts said Monday as they dispensed advice to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“’No child left offline’ should be our focus,” said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Nicol Turner Lee, referencing they rallying cry of FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. Turner Lee said that education needed to include but also be about much more than access to technology.

Turner Lee also called for an office of innovation coordinating between schools and municipalities. Other panelists also called for a shift in mindset

when asked what schools and educators should be asking for in a Biden-Harris administration.

The government is good at providing funding and protecting the civil rights of students, said Brookings Senior Fellow Jon Valant, and that he expected the Biden administration would first focus on adding resources for schools.

McKinley Price, mayor of Newport News, Virginia, called for an expert in educating kids to be put in charge of the Education Department.

Some panelists said they wanted a focus on broadband access. Superintendent Danna Diaz of Reynolds School District in Oregon said she’d like connectivity to be treated as a basic need within education. Better online access cannot be achieved without a private public partnership, she said.

Valant went a step further, saying the goal we need to be moving toward is universal broadband.

John Palfrey, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, also said the administration would focus on funding. Palfrey said federal education budgets grew when things were going well. But the country needs to instead shift to spending more now, when the times are the hardest.

A ‘whole child’ approach, also questions of school re-openings and the academic calendar

Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez of Hartford Public Schools called for a “whole child” approach that considered student health needs, engagement, and culture. Students need to be challenged as well as supported.

Government-community partnership models are already working and need to be used to unlock policy debates, said Palfrey.

Racial issues need to be considered with antiracist lens because school systems were not created for Black and brown students, said Diaz. “There’s not an achievement gap, there’s a funding gap.”

Torres-Rodriguez said that that Latino students in her district were the least likely to show up in school.

Valant expressed concern that school openings were often more associated with local politics than local health conditions.

Parents of minority students often don’t want to send their kids back to school because of health concerns, he said. Hence many communities with high minority populations have stayed virtual.

Yet this trend is at odds with the fact that many students in this demographic often don’t have access to broadband needed to attend school virtually.

That’s why changes as small as not using tests, or as large as rethinking the academic calendar, should be on the table, said panelists.

Diaz and Price pointed out that the current calendar was created around an agrarian economy. That schedule might not be as efficient, especially when many students have experienced significant learning losses because of the pandemic and need time to catch up.

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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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Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy, Outreach as Important as Physical Infrastructure, Panel Hears

Digital literacy gap and lack of outreach are part of the digital divide.

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Screenshot of National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer at TLC event in 2019

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 – Broadband advocates argued Thursday that outreach and digital literacy are as important as infrastructure and are necessary to close the digital divide.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer explained during a Protocol event Thursday that the government’s considerations need to extend beyond the deployment of physical broadband infrastructure and should be equally focused on addressing digital literacy and adoption efforts in underserved and unserved communities.

Siefer listed several pitfalls that are often overlooked and only broaden the digital divide. Among them, she listed fees tied to digital literacy, such as securing devices to access the internet and the tech support necessary to make them usable.

Additionally, she addressed the lack of trust that exists between historically underserved or unserved communities.

“We have to understand the reasons that folks would not take free internet,” Siefer said about previous adoption programs. “I think we learned that lesson again and again at the height of the pandemic when lots of folks were trying to solve the affordability issues [by] paying for community members’ internet, and community members were saying ‘no,’ and they just walk away because free internet sounds like a scam.”

She said that those running programs designed to help these communities have to consider the unique issues facing each community and then evaluate who the communities trust and how best to get information to them.

“There may be device issues, there may be privacy and security concerns, or maybe other digital skills/needs that a person has,” Siefer said. “So, we have to address all of their needs. Because if we think we’re only going to fix it by addressing one we’re not going to get to the results that we want to get to.”

NTIA head explains broadband infrastructure process

In separate remarks at the event, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson outlined a roadmap for states to follow to receive federal funding allocated as part of the Commerce agency’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, which will distribute $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson explained that in order for states to receive the funding they have been allotted, they must provide plans that lay out how they will handle their grant making procedures, and that plan must be approved by the NTIA. “[The NTIA] has been given the authority to approve the initial plans that states put together,” Davidson said. “Only [on the initial plan] has been approved does the first tranche of money go out.”

This first portion of funding will only amount to 20 percent of the total sum the state can get. Following this dispersion of the initial 20 percent, states would have to submit a final plan and have it approved by the NTIA before the following 80 percent will be dispersed.

“We will have a lot of oversight to make sure that states are following through on the requirements of the statute and are meeting the requirements,” Davidson added. “There will also be a lot of grant program oversight to make sure that the money is being spent wisely – to make sure that the sub-grantees who get the money are actually following through on their commitments.”

“We know that we are going to have to partner with [states] and also offer them help,” Davidson said. “Different states are in really different situations. “We know that we are going to have to partner with them and support them – that is going to be a key part of what we do here in the federal government.”

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Divide Impacting Access to Justice, Conference Hears

Some lawyers say their clients are having a difficult time getting access to the legal system without connectivity.

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Screenshot of Olivia Sideman at the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference on Tuesday

WASHINGTON, March 31, 2022 – A public defender from California said Tuesday that clients of lawyers are being disadvantaged by the lack of connectivity.

At the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference hosted by Next Century Cities, Olivia Sideman said her clients were at a disadvantage if they did not have an adequate connection or if they lacked digital literacy, meaning they did not know how to use technology to communicate, learn, find information, etc.

Sideman stated that the digital divide can mean that some clients cannot contact their lawyer, make mandatory virtual court appearances, or participate in court-issued online classes that will lessen their sentence. In other cases, while clients can complete courses, they often struggle to print out the certificate.

Tuesday’s panel event included discussion about a recently published report with a panel of various guests that played a part in the creation of the report. The report, titled “Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement,” concluded that remote hearings should be optional, that the digital divide exacerbates criminal justice inequalities the system is trying to eliminate, and that mobile internet service and devices are inadequate.

The report then offered its own recommendations, aided by experts like Sideman, such as partnering with community organizations, supporting local solutions, and investing in adoption as well as access.

In the report, Sideman said the digital divide is “another way in which our clients’ rights are overlooked by the court, another way in which this entire system tramples on our clients rights…These sorts of experiences undermine faith in the justice system and civic institutions.”

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