Last week I discussed the issue of expanding broadband to disadvantaged populations and how this infrastructure requires both the support of the target community and improved “digital literacy” in communities. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hosted a lessons learned webinar on May 20 to relate the successful strategies of the Recovery Act-funded Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and to provide a broadband adoption toolkit for local governments interested in replicating successful projects. This follow-up article highlights some of the inspiring examples provided by the BTOP presenters, who spearheaded projects that creatively assessed community needs and harnessed partnerships to improve economies and communities alike.
How do we bridge the digital divide?
The elements of the solution that cut across BTOP successes include the following:
- Communication that highlights the relevance of internet in residents’ lives
- Partnerships with trusted and established neighborhood institutions
- Accessible broadband with convenient locations and hours, language options, and support services
- Affordable options: assistance with finding discounted computer equipment and affordable broadband service
Local government success stories were represented by representatives from the City of Seattle and Crook County, Oregon, followed by e-Vermont and the City of Milwaukee. The successful lessons provided by the grantees included the following:
- Engaging with stakeholders and partnership building to move things forward (absolutely critical)
- Conveying the benefits of infrastructure development: sell the program not by talking tech but by demonstrating benefits to improve communities
- Integrating broadband adoption strategies by leveraging ongoing programs
- Using data to drive decision makers and measure impact
- Approaching comprehensive sustainability that not only looks at the dollars but takes into account the economic, political, organizational aspects
Examples of successful implementation
How have successful grantees implemented the above strategies?City of Seattle
In terms of leveraging cross-sector partnerships and ongoing programs, David Keyes of the Seattle Community Technology Program provided some great “think outside the box” examples in maximizing BTOP funding:
- Collaborated with community nonprofits and libraries and leveraged volunteers through the tech industry.
- Brought computers into courthouses by leveraging the relationship with the Washington State Bar Association through the Communities Connect Network, helping to provide relevant content for users seeking legal resources.
- Worked with universities not only to provide research resources but also to conduct needs assessments in the communities.
- Recruited and trained seniors to teach other seniors on how to use computers and technology through the Seniors Training Seniors program.
Crook County, Oregon
Partnering with other community entities is par for the course for rural local governments, and Crook County (pop. 21,000) is no exception. Andrew Spreadborough, executive director of the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, presented on how the county successfully integrated its broadband strategy with Central Oregon Community College and Oregon State University to provide broadband access, training, and education to residents.
The community developed an Open Campus Public Computing Center centered on the idea of partnerships among education providers. By developing a single location and sharing resources, educational resources could be brought to rural communities. Included in the county’s project was the provision of a “Bit Mobile” mobile lab that provides 14 computer stations where partners provide instruction, training, and of course broadband access to remote areas of the county that have limited or no broadband access.e-Vermont
Helen Labun Jordan, director of the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project (2010-2012) at the Vermont Council on Rural Development, presented on community-led projects through the program. e-Vermont brought together a consortium of different partners. Like the other examples, e-Vermont began by facilitating community conversations on goals, opportunities, and challenges, and then bringing in the technology solution. Here are some example projects:
- Front Porch Forum: An online discussion forum that allows residents to get comfortable talking online about offline community issues. This project became immensely popular.
- Public internet access and digital literacy: Communities desired not only statewide public internet access but also digital literacy assistance focused on essential services switching to an all-online format, such as unemployment services.
- Municipal websites: Helping municipalities develop affordable and easy-to-use websites that were easily managed.
Nancy A. Olson, chief information officer for the City of Milwaukee, presented on the Connecting Milwaukee Communities project to reach economically vulnerable populations in the city and to address barriers to access:
- Lack of awareness of resources
- Insufficient resources to meet demand
- Lack of formal training for digital illiteracy
- Need for one-on-one technology assistance
The city addressed these issues in part by employing technology specialists at public libraries, providing wi-fi access to residents of Housing Authority sites, and engaging with non-adopters by demonstrating the significance of technology in daily life. The need for one-on-one assistance is an example of how building broadband infrastructure also necessitates bringing training and mentoring to make such a program a success. Such barriers are not unique to Milwaukee but common to many municipalities. The city spread the word about the program through press releases, community newspapers, bus shelter ads, billboards, and even laptop skins that colorfully branded for ARRA/BTOP. (The skins are quite beautiful, like mini-murals.)
How has your community taken on similar challenges? If you work in local government or the nonprofit sector, how have you strategized with other community-based groups? This is also your space to share your story and boast!
- NTIA Broadband toolkit. The meat of the lessons learned, with numerous useful anecdotes. http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/toolkit_042913.pdf
- Digital Inclusion Network. Hundreds of users discussing digital inclusion issues. http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/inclusion
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