Each year, digital equity advocates from across the country gather for one of our favorite traditions: the National Digital Inclusion Alliance‘s Net Inclusion summit. It’s more of a family reunion than conference — we just gather for conversations centered around access and the billions of federal dollars available for broadband infrastructure and digital equity instead of over a barbeque or baked goods.
This year, reuniting for the 2022 conference in Portland was especially exciting, as Chattanooga took center stage more than once. Former mayor Andy Berke, now Special Representative for Broadband at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, spoke about $42 billion in broadband funding available through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program with NDIA’s Executive Director, Angela Siefer, as well as to discuss the $2.75 billion available for digital inclusion efforts at the state and local levels.
“That collaborative process between government and non-profits — that’s how you make strides on this digital equity front,” Berke said, highlighting the work of The Enterprise Center and stressing how the solutions-driven model we’ve created here could be replicated across the country, particularly considering these historic new funding opportunities.
“I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on the intersection of digital equity and economic development, featuring Byte Back’s CEO Joe Paul, Lead for America LISC Fellow Liz Lima and Dr. Roberto Gallardo, Director of the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University.
During the conversation regarding connecting residents to learning opportunities, Chattanooga’s EMPACT program was highlighted as an exemplary project. For The Enterprise Center, initiatives like Tech Goes Home are vital for economic mobility in the innovation economy: Without access to technology and the skills to use it, it’s impossible to keep up — let alone get ahead.”— Deb Socia, President & CEO
And our friends at Thrive Regional Partnership presented on a similar theme during a lightning round, with their Director of Operations, Shannon Millsaps, sharing their model for convening partners around digital access and equity across state and county lines.
“I also had the chance to attend, joining our colleagues Vicky Yuki, of NDIA; Casey Sorensen, CEO of PCs for People; Gina Dirks, from Voqal and Mobile Citizen; and Jesse Rodriguez, with the City of Austin, in a panel discussion on low (and no) cost internet plans, including the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program. With the ACP’s $30 per month subsidy available nationwide, it’s a resource all digital equity advocates now have to affordably connect families to the internet.”— Geoff Millener, COO
Another important lesson here was from Chattanooga: Communities still need to invest in infrastructure, like EPB’s smart grid and municipal fiber optic network.
These investments are how we’re able to offer no-cost home internet through HCS EdConnect, at speeds most other communities still can’t access. Affordability coupled with subsidies to make that affordability practical are crucial, but we can’t let ‘good enough’ get in the way of what’s possible in terms of long-term, equitable solutions.
Another particularly relevant panel highlighted the importance of digital skills training for residents re-entering their communities following incarceration, which featured three panelists sharing their own experiences with the justice system in conversation with Dr. Lassana Magassa, from the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab. With Project Return now launched in Chattanooga — as well as partners like The Next Door, and diversionary initiatives like Hamilton County Drug Recovery Court — the conversation could not have been more timely, as we work together to ensure every resident has the digital skills they need to succeed.
This year’s Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award, of which we are both honored to have received in the past, highlighted two more vital areas of digital inclusion through this year’s recipients: Elizabeth Camacho and Dr. John Torous, of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Harvard’s Medical School. Both were recognized for their DOORS initiative supporting mental health through digital skills, and Generations on Line’s founder Tobey Dichter was celebrated for her decades of work advocating for, connecting and teaching older adults. As we work locally with partners like the AIM Center and SETAAAD, these Champions’ work offers innovative lessons for our collaborations.
While Chattanooga is certainly a national trailblazer, there is always more work to be done. The calling card of the national digital equity community has always been the way we share — ideas, resources, time — with each other. From learning about Smart Columbus’s efforts (where we’ll be for Smart Cities Connect later this year), to catching up with our sister gig-city and KC Digital Drive, to meeting so many first-time attendees, whose organizations have thrown themselves into closing the digital divide since the onset of the pandemic, Net Inlucison 2022 was an outstanding opportunity to learn, plan and build steam for the years to come.
And, speaking of the years to come, our team is looking forward to attending Net Inclusion in San Antonio in 2023 — but especially excited to welcome this community of advocates, experts and leaders to Chattanooga for Net Inclusion 2024! We’re already looking forward to the solutions we’ll be reflecting on then, as we take steps to create and implement them today.