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How Are You Solving the Digital Divide

One of the most common questions I’m being asked these days is from local politicians and economic development folks who want examples of other communities that are tackling and solving the digital divide.

I’m able to trot out the big-picture stories because they come to my attention in reading about the industry. As an example, just before I wrote this blog, I read an article that says that the State of Maryland will be providing 150,000 laptops to homes that don’t have a computer. The article also mentions that the State has a program labeled the Emergency Broadband Benefits program that has spent $4.6 million this year to help low-income homes pay for home broadband.

Those programs sound great, and there are other large initiatives at the state level around the country undertaking similar efforts. But telling local officials about those big programs is not the answer they are looking for. They want to know what they can do to tackle the digital divide in their local town or county.

My blog has been full of discussions over the last year of federal and state grant programs aimed at building faster broadband networks for rural homes without decent broadband alternatives. I’ve had several recent blogs talking about how the pace of building new broadband networks is going maddingly slow—but these networks are coming.

While a new rural fiber or wireless network in a county might solve the broadband speed issue, these local folks know that they still have a lot of other broadband issues to overcome. The classic example of the digital divide uses the analogy of a three-legged stool. Even when a home gets faster broadband, the home will not get over the digital divide until three issues are solved. Bringing a new network solves the need for an adequate broadband connection. But many homes will not be able to afford the new broadband connection. Folks also need a computer in the home in order to fully enjoy the benefits of broadband. Finally, folks need to know how to use the computer and how to navigate the online world to achieve their digital goals.

Local officials are looking for examples of local plans and programs that are tackling all three of these issues. I think it’s almost universally agreed that a community will be far better off when most of its citizens have digital literacy.

My broadband career has been focused on the network solution—how to fund and build the needed broadband networks that communities need. I find that I have almost no examples of small or rural communities that have solved any of the three legs of the digital divide. For example, I have talked to dozens of counties that found ways to get computers to every student during the pandemic. But none of these counties had any plans for getting computers to homes without students—and very few have any plans for continuing to give computers to students once the federal monies that paid for the computers are gone.

This blog is asking for help from my readers. I want to hear stories from communities that are tackling any of the three legs of the digital divide head-on. I really want to hear from a community that is tackling all three issues—because they are the poster child that everybody is looking for. I will likely write blogs about some of the success stories I hear—but even if I don’t write about each one, I will let other communities know what you are doing. I also am interested in hearing about efforts that didn’t work—please help others not repeat your mistakes.

Everybody tells me that solving the digital divide means tackling the issue for one person or one family at a time. The question everybody is asking me is how to create a sustainable program that can do that. I’d love to hear your story.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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