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Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards Encourage, Highlight City Broadband

These awards will help provide yet another resource to help cities and counties navigate the murky waters they find themselves in when it comes to broadband.

Broadband advocacy organization Next Century Cities (NCC) announced a new awards program July 30 through a partnership with Google Fiber. Called the Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards, the program will showcase city broadband projects nationwide that help bridge the digital divide. 

Cities and counties can win awards in two categories, one that recognizes digital divide programs more than one year old and another that recognizes newer programs. NCC will look at how cities ensure broadband equity across their communities by providing computers, affordable Internet access and training.

About 60 million Americans don’t have Internet access at home, according to NCC, and these awards are one way they’re trying to change that, said Deb Socia, NCC executive director.

“There are lots of programs that don’t get lots of attention, and we’d like to shine a light on some of those cool projects out there,” Socia said. “Secondly, we really hope that through this process we can solidify some thinking around what the good practices are, highlight those good practices, create a toolkit that helps people who are just in the beginning stages find the best possible way to bring a good digital inclusion program to their city.”

Ensuring that everyone has access to the Internet, sometimes called digital inclusion or digital equality, is a growing concern for many large cities. Building broadband infrastructure is already expensive and difficult, but cities that prioritize the notion of not leaving anyone behind have an additional challenge, and it’s one that no one has great answers to.

“Digital inclusion is really complex,” Socia said. “It’s issues around poverty, it’s issues around access, education -- there’s so much embedded in it. And we know who’s not online. The problem is how do you get them online? … Just giving access doesn’t solve the problem, because people don’t know why [the Internet] is relevant. I think the big question is how do you take on a problem like that as a city government, and our suggestions and recommendations to folks revolve around collaborating with nonprofits, with community-based groups, with community assets to solve the problem.”

Addressing digital inclusion is the most difficult problem in broadband policy today, said Chris Mitchell, NCC policy director and director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

“I think cities have a legitimate concern that the existing, particularly the national providers, are focused on the consumers that have money,” Mitchell said. “And there’s concern there’s no real market for low-income folks, so a common question is what can we do with wireless, for instance. Is that a good way to solve connectivity for low-income neighborhoods? That’s probably one of the most common reasons wireless is discussed is specifically to try and make sure that people have at least a basic connection near their homes.”

Solving a difficult challenge smartly requires research and lots of reliable information, but there isn’t much out there. People go to organizations like ILSR and NCC to find information, but much of it is anecdotal, it’s unscientific, and it’s hard to know that what works for one city will work for another. These awards, Mitchell said, will help provide yet another resource to help cities navigate the murky waters they find themselves in today.

Award applications, which can be filed on the NCC website, are due by Sept. 23. Winners will be announced at the National League of Cities’ Congress of Cities and Exposition being held from Nov. 4-7 in Nashville, Tenn.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.