Connected Nation Live Panel welcomes progress in digital divide

The recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was an unprecedented step towards bridging the digital divide that nevertheless leaves a considerable amount of data collection, mapping and other work still to be done, according to a panel. Live from experts and tech advocates held Wednesday. by the nonprofit Connected Nation.

With roundtables in Washington, DC, Portland, Oregon, and a third in Sugar Land, Texas, and co-hosted by students from the Fort Bend Independent School District, Connected Nation’s “20 Years of Connecting the Nation: A National Conversation on the Digital Divide “recruited private, public and nonprofit leaders to explain past efforts on broadband access and what could be done with new funding to take them forward.

Daniel Gutwein, director of Intel Corporation’s N50 project, which aims to engage “the next 50%” of the population in the digital economy, said a key to getting people online will be getting people online. infrastructure to make small communities profitable investments for businesses. . He said some citizens with theoretical broadband access still don’t have it for a multitude of reasons, such as digital literacy, apps, language barrier or cost, and although some entrepreneurs are developing applications to solve some of these problems locally, they need an infrastructure to get started. Once this is in place, private companies will have a vested interest in these communities connecting and being successful.

From the US Department of Agriculture, Rural Development Chief of Staff Farah Ahmad said the new bill should help regain a competitive advantage that the United States risks losing due to the digital divide. He said the USDA is focusing on communities of 20,000 people or less, who are expected to gain essential resources from the new bill, as they did with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

“At USDA, we always think about the electrification law and how it really transformed rural communities, giving them the power and tools they needed to be successful. In fact, we see this historic infrastructure package as just another way to do it – by reinvesting in communities across the country, but especially in rural communities, ”Ahmad said. “In this (new bill), for example, $ 65 billion for broadband. Part of that will come to infrastructure, but there’s also money in there for digital equity … digital literacy, affordability, the whole range of tools we need to make broadband more accessible to more people in more places, and earlier.

Representatives from several local government agencies discussed the heavy toll of distance learning and telecommuting in communities without broadband. Jasper Economic Development Corporation executive director Eddie Hopkins called Connected Nation’s work a “blessing” to his county, where some people pay four times as much for broadband as it costs in Dallas.

David McCullough, president and owner of Hill Country Wireless and Technology LLC in Johnson City, Texas, described another reality in rural communities that many Americans have never experienced.

“Post-COVID, [Internet access] is a necessity. People’s livelihoods, school children, teachers – people gathered around our library, as it was the only building in town that had internet, so people were there from 5 a.m. in the parking lot until 10 pm in the evening to do their homework. I had people delivered pizza to the library in their cars, ”he said. “[We need to] change that so that they can work at home, school at home, be connected to the community and to the world.

Greg Guice, director of government affairs for the nonprofit telecommunications association Public Knowledge, stressed that “unserved” is not just a rural problem. Bridging the digital divide will require full accounting of who has and does not have internet access, he said, and creating accurate maps will require comment.

“In many [urban] regions, the economy surrounding service to people can be very similar to that of a rural region. They just might not be cost effective to serve, despite the fact that within a block there is a fiber optic connection they can plug into. So we have to get that data, and that’s really the next phase. With the infrastructure package, Congress asked the FCC to initiate a digital redlining process, to determine in urban and rural areas who is being left behind and why, ”Guice said. “It’s really critical that states can say to the FCC and NTIA, ‘This card is fake, there is no service in this area.’ Because if you miss it [funding], the next time the money arrives, it’s not anytime soon.

Bill Johnson, senior strategist at consulting firm SIG Applied Geographics Inc., discussed the limitations of predictive mapping and the progress his New York-based company is making on the state broadband initiative. He said Applied Geographics collected data from all of the state’s broadband companies, around 80 of them, many of which were very small companies, and produced the first detailed broadband map of New York State.

“It was very important, especially for the broadband program office. My team ended up doing a lot of analysis for the program office, ”Johnson said. “They would have questions about a particular vendor, or they would like to see the data sliced ​​and diced, say by State Assembly district or by economic development zones, so we were able to pull all of these things out. map and data, and the director of the broadband program office at the time was delighted to be able for the first time to make policy recommendations based on real data.

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