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Connect99: Birmingham Takes Aim at the Digital Divide

Over the past few months, the city of Birmingham has helped enroll hundreds of residents in the Affordable Connectivity Program, while increasing digital skills expertise and expanding tech device accessibility through its CONNECT99 campaign.

Birmingham, Ala._shutterstock_696217879
Officials in Birmingham, Ala., are utilizing a new awareness campaign to break down accessibility barriers to a utility that could impact residents’ ability to land jobs, find educational opportunities and enroll in health care.

The CONNECT99 campaign, launched last November, was created by the Birmingham mayor’s office to help direct residents to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal initiative aimed at helping low-income households afford high-speed Internet connections through a $30 monthly federal subsidy. As of April 3, 17 million U.S. households have enrolled in the $14.2 billion ACP program, which is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

CONNECT99 was created to increase the local enrollment numbers in a city that knows the impact having quality Internet access can have on families.

“Having the ability to connect to high-speed Internet is now a basic need,” Mayor Randall L. Woodfin said in a press release last year. “We are thrilled that our federal government is providing this service and want to do all we can to ensure eligible residents in all 99 neighborhoods have access to this resource.”

Officials knew that creating a viable awareness campaign would take research, collaboration and the ability to identify those passionate about digital equity for all communities. After some searching, the mayor's office eventually connected with FUSE, a national nonprofit that partners with local governments and communities to create projects that advance racial equity and accelerate infrastructure changes.

FUSE recruits professionals from across the U.S. who are making great strides in their respective fields into its FUSE Fellowship to partner with government municipalities to tackle issues related to digital equity and social justice for a span of one year.

Fellow Aneta Lee, originally from Atlanta, Ga., was chosen to lead the charge toward a comprehensive strategy for citywide broadband expansion and digital inclusion. Lee, a program manager for the national nonprofit EveryoneOn, arrived in Birmingham with eight years of experience in digital skills training and partnership management to improve tech access and education in impoverished areas.

“Starting as a fellow, I became acquainted with various individuals in the city of Birmingham through the mayor’s office and studied the current ecosystem through asset mapping in order to gain more information on current digital resources. From there, I knew where to plug in to make a change,” Lee told Government Technology. “The lowest hanging fruit was the ACP federal subsidy because it is out there and available to families right here and now.”

Lee wanted to create an overarching digital equity coalition that encompassed government, civic and business leaders to help bring awareness to ACP resources, provide access to tech devices and train users on digital skills to utilize the broadband resource once received.

To bring that vision to life, Lee worked collaboratively with EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that consults with governments and school districts to curate city-branded advocacy campaigns. The organization helped Lee formulate the name CONNECT99, which speaks to the city's goal of connecting all of the city's 99 neighborhoods digitally.

With the groundwork in place, the city turned to a staple in the community for technology and digital resources — the Birmingham Public Library (BPL). Staff members at the BPL were trained to assist residents with the ACP process and applicants used library devices to complete the necessary paperwork as part of the CONNECT99 initiative.

Having partners to help bring awareness to the ACP and facilitate the application process was a big win for Lee, but affordability and network accessibility to broadband services were not the only issues she hoped to tackle through the program.

“With 92 percent of all jobs now requiring digital skills, to address inequity in the digital infrastructure of the city, digital skills training and increased access to tech devices are also large goals within our initiative,” Lee stated.

True Vine Evangelical Outreach Ministries, a local community organization and recovery center that assists those recovering from homelessness and addiction, helped connect Lee with community members in need of digital resources and training to re-enter society. Through CONNECT99, individuals in True Vine’s recovery program could attend computer classes for eight to 12 weeks. During that time, a technology teacher from the Birmingham Public Library taught them basic computer skills and how to enroll in the ACP.

Since many in the True Vine program did not have permanent housing, the city took a unique approach to sign them up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, partnering with PCs for People, an organization that works to get quality computers into the homes of individuals with low incomes. Through the partnership, eight True Vine recovery program participants were provided with refurbished laptops and hot spots to sign up for the ACP and apply for classes, jobs and benefits from anywhere.

“In the 21st century, for you to survive, you need Internet access,” Lee added. “And even beyond that, you need the skills to use it effectively and devices to tap into the digital resource.”

Although Lee’s one-year fellowship with the city of Birmingham will soon end, CONNECT99 has impacted hundreds in the city during the past few months under her leadership. On day one of the campaign, Lee and the education advocacy nonprofit Mario Addison Community Partnership, helped enroll approximately 75 people into the ACP while visiting two Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD) federal housing properties.

Her work with the mayor’s office also helped HABD discover and receive a $262,397 FCC outreach grant called Your Home, Your Internet. As part of the award, HABD was given access to a specialized database to make the ACP application process easier for residents receiving federal assistance.

Lee believes she has planted a seed through her role with the city of Birmingham and said she hopes local officials will continue the work to create a permanent digital equity coalition and bridge accessibility gaps in its digital infrastructure.

“The bottom line is that digital assets such as the Internet need to be robust, affordable and widely accessible, and we have to do everything we can to provide this essential utility,” Lee said. “The federal government has taken the first step through funding and great investments, but the solution is hyperlocal, so we must also take the necessary steps to create equity in our own communities.”

Editor's note: This story was adjusted to more accurately reflect the name of one of the partner organizations.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.