Challenges and opportunities for digital equity in 2023
The team reflects on the last 12 months and looks forward to advancing internet connectivity in the year ahead
Photo: © Chris Gregory / Internet Society
2022 was a blockbuster year for action on digital equity in the United States as the biggest ever government investments to close the digital divide took shape, through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The year ahead is set to be yet more action-packed, with funds being allocated to states, states firming up their broadband plans, and communities preparing to secure funds to build fast, affordable, reliable internet to connect all residents.
We asked some of our team to reflect on efforts to advance digital equity over the past year and what they’re thinking about as we get to work in 2023. Here’s what they said:
Chris Worman, Chief Partnership and Strategy Officer
Looking back: It has been inspiring to watch a small but mighty community of foundations to non-profits, local organizers to corporations begin working extremely hard to ensure that coming US federal funds ultimately reach the communities they are intended to serve. This community is working tirelessly, with few resources, and in the face of significant, entrenched, opposition, to make sure that historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities have a path toward a more equitable future.
Looking forward: Unfortunately, I think it quite likely that many of these communities will fail to attract the financial support they so desperately need — the IIJA isn’t enough to solve the digital divide in its entirety. The silver lining is that many will have broadband plans and a better shared understanding about what they can do, if they can secure resources. Out of their frustration, I hope we are able to collectively build a movement that is better able to attract Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and other funds that can help deliver digital equity.
Melissa Huerta, Chief Program Officer
Looking back: Folks are still paying way too much for way too little ($150/ month for an unstable 3mbps in central Florida?!). When we look at un/underserved communities, we see the failures of public policy and the greed of extractive corporate entities. And we miss seeing just how hard some of these communities are working to get connected. This year really showed me how much time, effort, and resources these communities are already devoting to get online and get access to critical services and information, despite the power working against them. We’ve worked with former telco employees who are creating unions to build more equitable networks, and others who are installing mesh networks on a volunteer basis to keep kids in their neighborhood connected to Zoom school. Nurturing this spirit and telling the story of these communities is essential to our movement to connect humanity.
Looking forward: The point is, a lot of work is already happening. I want to see these stories elevated and interconnected, bring critical resources to the table, and get more communities involved in building their paths to digital equity. At the same time, I’m focused on adapting the learnings to serve different communities and meet them where they are; we have an incredible opportunity to get folks on the engaged-to-empowered pathway in an efficient and effective way, and grow their local capacity. I’m eager to build partnerships and drive our impact at scale.
Brian Vo, Chief Investment Officer
Looking back: You hear about the “digital divide” and you intuitively get that it’s a problem. But for the connected world, it’s hard to really understand the impact that it has on families: kids with no Zoom for school, adults with no way to apply for online jobs, elderly people with no way to sign up for COVID vaccines. The contrast between the internet connectivity that many people are stuck with (some I spoke to were paying +$100 for dial-up!) versus how solvable the digital divide really is, is truly stark. We are proving that high-quality broadband in traditionally un(der)served areas can be financed sustainably.
Looking forward: Going from 0 to 1 is often the easiest in the social impact space. There are plenty of impact-minded people and organizations willing to bet on the new thing. We’ve done that this year. The real hurdle will be 2-10 when it’s no longer the new innovation but also still not yet an established practice (or in the case of our Investment Team, an understood asset class). This will be the biggest test, for ourselves and our partners, of our commitment to closing the digital divide in a way that centers communities’ interests.
Jordana Barton-Garcia, Senior Fellow
Looking back: It has been inspiring to join with Connect Humanity and people in local communities such as in the Mississippi Delta and the Texas Border who are committed to transforming persistent poverty regions into innovative, vibrant places full of opportunity. At the same time I have felt bewildered that the rules created to implement the IIJA have been made without the real life context in which people are living, and disregarding the roadmaps, best practices, community development tools, and data sets available to us. However, my frustration led to an insight — we are undergoing a profound and instructive national exercise in civic participation.
Looking forward: This is exactly the kind of engaged, complicated dialogue and policy analysis we need to learn to have to address the issue of the digital divide: one of the most consequential ethical challenges the advancement of technology has presented. If we can mobilize with communities to address the systemic issue of internet access, then we can do the same to set fair policy and law in the use of big data, algorithmic bias, artificial intelligence, and more. The current exercise can help us learn to identify false scarcity narratives and to invest in the assets in underserved communities. So, my optimism is back and I’m energized to join with all of you to tackle the work ahead.
Calum Cameron, Communications Manager
Looking back: The degree to which many incumbent internet providers aren’t only failing to serve communities, but are actively working to stop them getting connected has been deeply frustrating. The behavior of Cable One, working to stop a community-led network in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, is a prime example. If you aren’t part of the solution, get out of the way.
Looking forward: As $42 billion dollars is allocated for states to connect un[der]served communities, the question is whether that money flows to the organizations and communities that will actually bridge the digital divide? It’s all to play for. The work of digital equity advocates has never been more important.
Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer
Looking back: Shout out to our Build Better Broadband Partners EntryPoint, and Biarri, and to Connectivity Capital, Internet Society, and the Association for Progressive Communications. Without these partners we would not have discovered new ways to structure our planning grant processes. With our partners we were able to release a report that will help communities to better understand financing options, leading them to more sustainable futures.
Looking forward: I look forward to seeing how our partners can find new ways to bring new network infrastructure and digital skills training to their communities with us and on their own. I look forward to working with our partners to develop more tools to help them find ways to sustain their networks, train more people, and to drive more knowledge into their communities. I also look forward to telling more stories about the need for competitive local infrastructure so that we drive more funding into communities as some of the billions of IIJA dollars must go to competitive entrants vs existing for-profits that have not leveraged past Federal funding well.
Sarah Brown-Campello, Community Engagement Manager
Looking back: We know connectivity is important, but now we have the data backed by civil society. In a 2022 survey of over 7,500 civil society practitioners, more than 90% told us they need the internet to do their work and to communicate with the people they serve. Getting this data, in partnership with TechSoup, NTEN, Forus, WINGS and Civicus, is the first step in mapping and solving global connectivity needs.
Looking forward: We will launch a report with the results of this survey in January 2023! Sign up to join us!
Melissa (Missy) Boagey, CMP, Indigenous Program Manager
Looking back: It is amazing to look back and reflect on how much everyone has accomplished regarding Tribal Broadband Bootcamps. Four bootcamps were held, working with more than 20 Tribes. This success has been possible thanks to dedicated program organizers (Christopher Mitchell and Matthew Rantanen), knowledgeable trainers, engaged participants, generous sponsors, and host tribes.
Looking forward: I’m looking forward to planning and executing another year of bootcamps around North America as we grow this program and offer more opportunities for Indigenous people to develop skills to grow and build broadband networks. If you have any interest in attending, hosting or sponsoring a bootcamp, visit tribalbroadbandbootcamp.com.
Erica Mesker, Director of Partnerships
Looking back: When I joined Connect Humanity at the end of 2021 there were just four of us. Since that time we’ve built an incredibly talented and mission-driven team; we’ve created processes and programs that are new, innovative, and absolutely needed; we’ve built incredible partnerships (shoutouts to Student Freedom Initiative, Appalachia Regional Commission, Truist Foundation, and Filecoin Foundation who have all been so wonderful); and, most importantly, we’ve made huge strides toward our strategic goals and mission.
Looking forward: Starting up over the last year has been a lot of hard work — but we hit the ground running at full speed and the impact of that is now coming to fruition through the communities we serve. I’m excited to launch and grow some key partnership-driven programs that will exponentially scale our community impact over the next year.
We’re looking forward to working with all our partners, funders, and fellow-travelers to help make 2023 the most impactful year yet for advancing digital equity. Have thoughts about how we can do this better? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.