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Connected Nation Live Panel Hails Progress on Digital Divide

Live panels of experts from private, public and nonprofit sectors, organized by the nonprofit Connected Nation, convened this week to discuss what the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act means for the digital divide.

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From left, Brian Mefford of VETRO Inc., Linda Johnson of the Foundry Christian Community Center, Tom Ferree of Connected Nation and moderator Emily Buck of RFD-TV discuss past and future work to close the digital divide Wednesday in a live panel event.
The recent passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was an unprecedented step toward closing the digital divide that nonetheless leaves a considerable amount of data collecting, mapping and other work yet to be done, according to a live panel of technology experts and advocates Wednesday organized by the nonprofit Connected Nation.

Featuring panel discussions in Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and a third in Sugar Land, Texas, and co-hosted by students from Fort Bend Independent School District, Connected Nation’s “20 Years of Connecting the Nation: A National Conversation on the Digital Divide” recruited private, public and nonprofit leaders to explain past efforts around broadband access and what might be done with new funding to advance them.

Daniel Gutwein, director of Intel Corporation’s N50 Project, which aims to get “the next 50 percent” of the population to participate in the digital economy, said one key to bringing people online will be laying the infrastructure to make small communities worthwhile investments for business. He said some citizens with theoretical access to broadband still don’t have it for myriad reasons, such as digital literacy, applications, language barrier or cost, and while some entrepreneurs are developing applications to solve some of those problems locally, they need infrastructure to launch. Once that’s in place, private enterprises will have a vested interest in those communities coming online and succeeding.

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chief of Staff for Rural Development Farah Ahmad said the new bill should help return a competitive edge which the U.S. is at risk of losing due to the digital divide. He said the USDA’s focus is on communities of 20,000 people or less, which stand to gain essential resources through the new bill as they did through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

“At USDA, we always think about the Electrification Act, and how that actually transformed rural communities, giving them the power and the tools they needed to succeed. We actually see this historic infrastructure package as another way of doing that — reinvesting in communities all across this nation, but particularly in rural communities,” Ahmad said. “In that (new bill), for example, is $65 billion for broadband. Some of that will come to infrastructure, but there are also funds in there for digital equity … digital literacy, affordability, the whole gamut of tools that we need to make broadband more accessible to more people in more places, and sooner.”

Representatives of several local government agencies discussed the heavy toll of remote learning and telework on communities without broadband. Executive Director Eddie Hopkins of the Jasper Economic Development Corporation called the work of Connected Nation “a blessing” for his county, where some people pay four times more for broadband than it costs in Dallas.

David McCullough, president and owner of Hill Country Wireless and Technology LLC in Johnson City, Texas, described another reality in rural communities that many Americans have never experienced.

“Post-COVID, [Internet access] is a necessity. People’s livelihoods, children getting education, teachers — people congregated around our library, because it was the only building in town that had Internet, so people were there at 5 a.m. in the parking lot ‘til 10 p.m. at night doing homework. I had pizza deliveries going to the library to people in their cars,” he said. “[We need to] change that so they can work out of their home, do school out of their home, be connected to the community and the world.”

Greg Guice, director of government affairs for the telecommunications nonprofit Public Knowledge, emphasized that “unserved” is not only a rural problem. Closing the digital divide will require a full accounting of who does and doesn’t have Internet access, he said, and creating accurate maps will require feedback.

“In a lot of [urban] areas, the economics around serving people can be very similar to a rural area. They might just be unprofitable to serve, despite the fact that, a block away, there’s a fiber connection they can tap into. So we need to get at that data, and that’s really this next phase. With the infrastructure package, Congress told the FCC to run a digital redlining proceeding, to determine in urban and rural areas who is being left out and why,” Guice said. “It’s really critical that states be able to say to the FCC and NTIA, ‘This map is wrong, there is no service in this area.’ Because if you miss out on this [funding], the next time that money is coming is not soon.”

Bill Johnson, a senior strategist at the GIS consulting business Applied Geographics Inc., discussed the limits of predictive mapping and the progress his company made in New York under the state broadband initiative. He said Applied Geographics collected data from every broadband company in the state, about 80 of them, many of which were very small companies, and produced the first detailed broadband map of New York state.

“That was very important, particularly for the broadband program office. My team ended up doing a lot of analytics for the program office,” Johnson said. “They would have questions about a particular provider, or they would want to see the data sliced and diced for example by state assembly district or economic development zones, so we were able to spin all of those things out of the map and the data, and the director of the broadband program office at that time was thrilled to be able to make policy recommendations based on real data for the first time.”
Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.