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Rural Digital Navigators Offer Valuable Digital Equity Data

A $10 million grant from is expanding digital navigator programs in 18 rural or tribal communities nationwide, and advocates say the lessons could inform work for years to come.

rural internet
One of the pillars of digital inclusion work is the digital navigator — a trusted community member who helps others with their digital challenges — but advocates say that the model has mostly been limited to urban communities.

This, however, is changing. Armed with a $10 million grant from, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) is currently piloting an expansion of the digital navigator model to rural and tribal communities across the country. The group has found 18 partner organizations, who have hired a cohort of digital navigators. In recent months, those navigators started working in their communities, with funding to continue that work for the next two-and-a-half years. They’re calling this group the National Digital Navigator Corps.

Angela Siefer, the executive director of the NDIA, said that what’s happening now in those 18 communities could have an impact on efforts to bridge the digital divide nationwide.

“It’s not just about helping those 18 sites,” Siefer said. “... what we really want to get out of this investment is the learnings, so it can impact all this federal money that’s coming.”

As part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal government has earmarked an unprecedented $2.75 billion for digital equity in the United States, intending it to go down through the states to the local and community levels. In order to make sure that money is used as effectively as possible, decision-makers need to know what works best for communities.

This new program, Siefer said, will yield invaluable lessons and data about what type of digital equity work is most effective for rural and tribal areas.

“We’re already learning new things,” Siefer said of the NDIA. “It’s already time for us to update.”

One example has been about Internet service providers. The traditional thinking for advocates has been that Internet service providers (ISPs) can make strong partners, but they aren’t necessarily the best recipients for funding and grants, especially with digital navigator programs. Digital inclusion advocacy is heavily reliant on trust, and in many communities, the trust level for ISPs is low. To be blunt, there’s just not much love for the cable company.

Through the new program, however, the NDIA has learned that many tribal communities have a different relationship with their Internet service provider. When the call went out for applicants for the funding, the NDIA got an unusually high number from service providers in those areas.

They found that many ISPs there were owned or managed by tribal leaders. Their employees were also part of tight-knit communities. So, customers might already know the person who comes to install their Internet, well enough to call them later with questions about how to use it. Basically, ISPs in tribal areas were doing the work of digital navigators.

“It was already something that was happening,” Siefer said. “Tribal ISPs are solving their own issues. They are community-owned and operated, and having them there as digital navigators makes a lot of sense.”

Advocates have also learned that transportation can be a major challenge for rural areas. Whereas digital navigators in urban areas might work out of a community center or a local library, many rural towns don’t have that kind of anchor institution. Or they are far more spread out. A short bus ride or walk to find a digital navigator in a city, might be a 50-mile drive in the country.

As such, digital navigators there need to go to people. A digital navigator working in Texas outside of Houston, for example, does his work out of an American Legion, where he can also relate to those in need because he’s a veteran himself.

How this relates to the federal money, is that advocates can now encourage those same networks to apply for other grants, or they can let decision-makers know about what they learned when it comes time for them to allocate the federal funding.

“Now we have 18 sites in rural and tribal areas who know how to run a digital navigator program,” Siefer said, “and that’s where the federal money could go. Then the problem becomes scale.”

The potential to scale this work to more of the country was part of the reason Google’s philanthropic efforts directed money to it as well, said Justin Steele, the director of Americas.

“We’re definitely in this for the long haul,” Steele said, “because technology is changing so, so fast, and the pace of change is not slowing down.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.