If governments are to truly close the digital divide, they must focus on encouraging community broadband adoption and making sure residents have tools to access high-speed internet, not just on installing infrastructure, experts said earlier this week.
While there has been a lot of recent talk about the need to better map broadband availability, panelists at Nextgov and GCN’s Emerging Tech Summit warned that there must also be a similar emphasis on ensuring that people can take advantage of internet access, or else some communities will not feel the benefits.
This doesn’t feel like news but an astute observation. This post-pandemic round of federal broadband funding (BEAD, IIJA) takes a more holistic approach than previous funding efforts at combining infrastructure and use to support digital equity. Starting with requiring states to create a plan that include both but when you’re in the room with folks discussing the topic – it can feel adversarial, especially when talking about allocations of budgets. Communities that can’t get broadband prioritize infrastructure and communities who can’t afford it or the computers and skills to use it prioritize use. (Also as loud the folks who build infrastructure vs folks who do training.) Unfortunately, that discussion can go from infrastructure vs use to rural vs urban very quickly. That is not helpful for broadband or a building cohesive state community beyond broadband.
I have worked broadband providers and I have done weeks of digital training and given away plenty of computers so I’ve seen all sides – but I think most practitioners keep to their lane. And the lanes for infrastructure and usage can be as different as dirt road and swimming pool. We need to find a way that feels less competitive and more supportive. Pretend we’re doing a team triathlon and not the Amazing Race.
Ironically, I think 20 years ago when we were still selling the idea of the Internet, there was great collaboration between providers and trainers or other who promoted greater use. Providers needed the customers, and they were willing to support programs that got people to sign up. Maybe that’s the connection we need again – and it is something we see in local providers and cooperatives. For example, Paul Bunyan’s annual GigaZone Gaming Championship (April 22) it shows off the infrastructure in Bemidji but it also shows off Bemidji hopefully encouraging new residents, which will equal new customers. A less glamorous example is the provider that supports local training to encourage greater use for residents and local businesses thereby growing a customer base but also increasing digital skills and hopefully improving quality of life. (Blandin has supported many such initiatives – there’s a matrix of broadband community projects if you need any ideas.)