A year of living on the edge: looking over the precipice of the digital divide

It’s been a year of “living on the edge” for millions of Americans trying to bridge the Digital Divide.

If you saw the emails I receive weekly, sometimes daily, as the Communications Director for Connected Nation, from moms and dads, teachers, ranchers, rural residents, and others, you’d understand that’s no exaggeration. 

Here are some examples, just portions of often long emails, from people desperately searching for solutions:

I have small children that will need [internet] for education. One girl of mine is now in first grade and already has a disadvantage compared to other classmates….”

“We just bought a home and are absolutely floored by the lack of internet service and the absolute hopelessness from the community about their options. My husband and I work from home, and I am panicked….”

“I have tried to get the internet here. Line of sight and neighbor paid $4,000 for a tower. (That’s crazy)…

We are on a working cattle ranch that has cost prohibitive low quality internet service….please help us so that we can work from our property and the school aged children living here have access equal to their classmates in town….”’

“I am e-mailing to ask for any possible help to a very rural portion of our county that is currently struggling with problematic landline phone service, limited internet service, and no-cell phone service….” 

What makes matters worse is that many critical community organizations that help families and individuals are also struggling. For example,

“We have found ourselves having a tough time providing services to these clients and students.  Many do not have Internet service in their homes and when our building and classes were shut down, face-to-face, many of our clients had no way to connect with us.” ~The Ladder Alliance

“Youth come to our center to use our computers and internet. As the demand for our program is growing, we are in need of quality dependable internet services to support these youth and their families.” ~Project Impact 180

No matter who is writing the email—a resident, a business owner, or a representative for a community group—each one ends with the same question: Is there help?

As we are the cusp of a New Year, 2023 may finally provide the “yes” truly needed by those stuck in the Digital Divide, and, in 2022, Connected Nation has been quietly—and sometimes not so quietly—playing a role in making that possible.

Looking over the edge… on the precipice of great change

The pandemic created new understanding of the real-world implications of not closing the Digital Divide. This realization led to an unprecedented level of funding for expanding broadband (high-speed internet).  Billions of dollars were set aside at the state and federal levels.

But, perhaps more importantly, these funds come with specific guidelines that may finally ensure they reach—and even favor—those with the greatest need.

For example, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) launched the Affordable Connectivity Fund to help low-income families; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is administering several Digital Equity Act programs that require states to focus on digital inclusion; and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is handling the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which is focused on expanding high-speed internet access in rural areas.

In addition, with the recent release of the FCC National Broadband Map, emphasis is being placed on awarding grants and larger funding allocations based on the number of unserved areas (those areas with no broadband infrastructure) and underserved areas (those areas with little competition or low speeds) that would be served through a state’s broadband plan.

There are also programs offering funding to help expand access, adoption, and use of broadband to tribal areas, minority communities, and for middle-mile projects, which are those projects that extend national and regional internet infrastructure into remote communities.

We are now on the verge of great change, but many leaders are looking over the edge with uncertainty, unsure of taking that leap. That’s because broadband can be a complicated subject—one that requires deep knowledge and understanding of not only the technology but also the social issues surrounding the Digital Divide.

It’s why Connected Nation, a national nonprofit with more than 20 years’ experience in this space, has spent 2022 providing guidance, support, and understanding for state leaders, local communities, and even individuals.

Some of Connected Nation’s accomplishments for 2022 include:
  • Established public-private partnerships to tackle the Digital Divide in new and innovative ways.
    • Formed a joint venture with Allied Colo called “Connected Nation Internet Exchange Points LLC” (IXPs) to build carrier-neutral network interconnection facilities across the country.
    • Partnered with major land-grant universities to establish  IXPs in five new markets across the US.
  • Launched three free nationwide digital literacy and learning programs which include: 
    • Establishing Digital Literacy and Learning programs for adults with a focus on veterans and military spouses.
    • Creating the Teens Teach Tech program aimed at connecting teens with older adults.
    • Promoting Achievery, a free resource for kids, parents, teachers, and other caregivers.
       
  • Influenced both federal and state work related to digital equity and digital inclusion.
    • The FCC’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council (chaired by Connected Nation’s Vice President of Digital Inclusion) voted unanimously to adopt a report on digital discrimination and digital equity.
    • Connected Nation received a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to develop an electronic digital inclusion resource for the state.
    • Created a digital inclusion resource page for one state (not yet published).
       
  • Provided guidance, research, and data on broadband-related topics, including telehealth, telework, and access to vulnerable populations.
    • Doubled the Connected Nation research staff.
    • Handled AT&T research project on barriers to internet participation. 
    • Provided research analysis on tribal heath care in Michigan (still in process).
    • Presented research findings at three national and regional conferences.
  • Helped states create more granular—and accurate—broadband coverage maps.   
    • Created a broadband mapping portal for Massachusetts (other state portals are currently being developed).
    • Technicians and supervisors drove over 50,000 linear miles in Michigan, potentially opening broadband grant eligibility to thousands of unserved or underserved residents.
      • The team evaluated Telcom infrastructure capable of 100Mbps/20Mbps in all Michigan counties within seven months.
    • The Engineering and Technical Support team (ETS) dispatched employees to half a dozen states to conduct various projects regarding broadband grant eligibility.
    • Completed multiple county-level mapping of infrastructure or grant-level validation in multiple states including Tennessee, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, and Kentucky. 
       
  • Provided community- and state-level Technology Action Plans through the Connected program.
    • Worked in more than 25 communities in multiple states.
    • Played a critical role in charting Michigan’s path toward ubiquitous high speed internet service in the coming years—from defining and establishing the Michigan High School Internet Office (MIHI) to enabling community leaders and broadband providers to plan for upcoming grant opportunities.
    • Worked with local stakeholders in Texas to create new plans and presented a Broadband Hero Award to a community champion.
    • Through an extensive series of meetings and broadband planning sessions, the team educated and directed regional, county, and municipal community leaders on how to navigate the broadband landscape. 
    • Team members leveraged their experience, expertise and relationships with broadband providers to facilitate numerous local buildout projects and create public/private partnerships.
  • Provided telework training and job placement assistance at no-cost to individuals with an emphasis on helping veterans and military spouses.
    • Completed 13 Digital Works’ classes  
    • Graduated 56 new students
    • Developed an Internet Safety Web event
  • Conducted ten workshops and networking opportunities for communities on topics ranging from navigating telehealth, remote education, AG tech, and other informative sessions on how communities can advance the broadband conversation.
  • Helped (or currently working with) states and US territories to navigate current funding allocation rules and develop effective and comprehensive broadband plans—covering everything form digital inclusion to infrastructure needs—and partnering for long-term projects where needed.
    • Helped Puerto Rico write its plan for $158 million in Capital Projects Fund monies.
    • Joined the State of Kansas on their NTIA Middle-Mile Grant Program application to serve as a neutral assets administrator for the open access transport network they are seeking to build.
Much of 2022, for Connected Nation and others in this space, was spent waiting on the FCC’s new broadband coverage map*, tracking updated rules on how funding will be allocated, and preparing states and communities for the next steps.

As we enter 2023, all of this is coming together to create an opportunity that we’ll likely never see again. It will impact the next five to ten years of technology and broadband access across our country, and it will also show the nation which states, and which communities, are ready to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   

Let Connected Nation help you look over that edge and take the leap.  Contact us at info@connectednation.org. Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.