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NLC’s Digital Equity Playbook Offers New Resource for Cities

The National League of Cities last week released its Digital Equity Playbook, which offers information, case studies and strategies to help local government leaders in their digital equity work.

High-speed Internet in an urban setting.
The National League of Cities (NLC) held a virtual webinar on the newly published Digital Equity Playbook last week, offering local leaders information, examples and resources to help improve digital equity within their own communities.

During the Dec. 9 webinar, members of NLC and digital equity experts came together to discuss how the tool could support and expand other efforts in this space.

Notably, the playbook reports that over 150 million residents live with slow or unreliable Internet service, and over 40 million have no broadband. The digital divide impacts some groups more than others, with the report stating that nearly half of the digitally disconnected individuals are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“What’s more, the digital divide between those who have access to broadband and to those who do not amplifies existing racial inequities in our communities,” said Clarence E. Anthony, executive director and CEO of NLC, during the virtual webinar.

The funding question is one of the most significant barriers to deployment of universal broadband, despite the influx of funding from the federal infrastructure bill.

Panelist Roberto Gallardo, Center for Regional Development director at Purdue University, argued that cities and small towns should first and foremost be part of the designing of their state’s plan. That way, he said, communities will be empowered and supported to address this issue.

Gallardo also noted the importance of reframing the digital divide as a workforce and economic development issue. Workforce development programs are rarely cut from budgeting plans, he said.

Angelina Panettieri, NLC’s information technology and communications legislative director, also pointed to the federal investments which may be available to local governments through competitive grants. The caveat here is that local leaders need to be ready to pursue them or risk being left behind.

“And if communities haven’t taken the steps to understand what the broadband gaps are and the digital inequities that exist for their residents and formulate a plan for the future, they aren’t going to be ready to apply for these grants,” she said.

Even when the funding is there to provide digital resources to the community, these efforts can fall short if the community is not involved in the decision-making process.

Munirih Jester cited an example of distributing hot spots to a community without having the data on whether the hot spot connection serves a particular neighborhood.

Jester called cities “the great convener,” underlining the importance of the on-the-ground knowledge community organizations can bring to the table, both in terms of where the need is within a community and where funding opportunities may be. Cities with this information will likely be better equipped to engage with their broadband offices.

“I think the beauty, and also the challenge, of building alliances and coalitions for digital inclusion is that there is not a set of rules,” she said.

Both Gallardo and Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford underlined the importance of working with local schools — at the high school and college level — when building a coalition. Students and faculty can be very helpful in staffing these efforts and raising awareness. This can be very helpful for small communities with limited resources.

Electricity providers and corporate partners that have a vested interest in deploying Wi-Fi can also be valuable allies.

Meghan McDermott, director for digital inclusion and partnerships for New York City, said the goal of her city’s efforts is to serve New Yorkers in a way that can start to mitigate the historical impacts of digital redlining.

She cautioned that while access and adoption go hand in hand, access does not automatically mean inclusion.

“There’s going to be a range of systemic things that need to be addressed, and that’s the adoption side,” she stated.

The playbook and webinar are the starting point for what will be an ongoing conversation between the NLC, cities and others with a vested interest in digital equity, Panettieri explained.

The organization will continue building on this document with additional content. In addition, there will be monthly scheduled “deep dives” into the many related topics, beginning in January to share how to do the community needs assessment.

For now, local leaders can begin by using the tool to start a digital equity needs assessment to understand broadband access and adoption within their own cities.

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