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State of the Net: ‘This Is Our Chance to Connect Everybody’

During the 2023 State of the Net Conference, digital equity experts discussed the importance of seizing the current financial opportunity to bridge the digital divide, and why collaboration is essential.

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Shutterstock/Sergii Gnatiuk
Experts at the 2023 State of the Net Conference this week discussed the importance of collaborating to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime digital equity opportunity that exists right now.

During a fireside chat March 6, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator Alan Davidson explained that the digital divide is something that the federal government has been working to close for decades. Despite these efforts, millions of American households still have not realized basic Internet adoption. Now, however, Davidson says the NTIA and its sister agencies finally have the resources to address this issue on a structural level.

The tens of billions of dollars in funding currently available is an opportunity that is not going to come again, he said, likening the major infrastructure undertaking to the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

“This is our chance to connect everybody in the country with what they need to thrive in the modern digital economy,” he stated. “And we’re going to need everybody’s help to do that.”

This sentiment was echoed during a panel titled, “Achieving Digital Equity: Filling In the Adoption Gaps.”

The panelists included Katie Spiker, National Skills Coalition’s managing director of government affairs; Deborah Lathen, president of Lathen Consulting LLC; and Annette Taylor, director of the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.

Taylor, in discussing her state’s work to submit its digital equity plan to NTIA, underlined the importance of getting this right, adding that public input plays a crucial part in making the most of the opportunity.

“The opportunity is meeting people where they are, and the challenge is meeting people where they are,” Taylor said.

Lathen, meanwhile, noted the challenge created by the lack of trust many people put in government and advocated for engagement with trusted community groups and individuals to help build public engagement.

This is also especially important in considering the digital skills gap, as Spiker pointed to the National Skills Coalition’s recent report findings that reveal 92 percent of jobs now require at least one digital skill. The skills gap has an impact on every sector, and collaboration between businesses, human service providers, and educational institutions will be crucial in building the digital literacy needed to meet Internet adoption goals as well as workforce needs.

In North Carolina, Taylor said working with trusted community partners, like libraries, has helped to increase the awareness among individuals about supportive resources that may be available to them, specifically referring to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

Lathen also emphasized the need to push Congress to extend the ACP, because if it expires or even lapses, not only will people likely lose connectivity, they may also lose trust in government.

To reach communities in need, digital inclusion efforts must be “equitable by design,” Lathen explained, using quality data and maps to understand and address needs, but also must have measures in place for accountability within that process.

Spiker pointed out that there are also opportunities for the federal government to bake digital equity into other programs in legislation up for reauthorization this year — like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Farm Bill.

“It’s also about making sure that we’re investing in the right places now, so that we can then make the case for how important and how well these investments impact local areas — and people who’ve been left behind by intentional policy decisions,” Spiker said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.