How Connect Humanity grants support communities on the path to digital equity

Enabling community health, sustainable business models, and affordable broadband

How Connect Humanity grants support communities on the path to digital equity

Photo: Candace, a digital steward in Detroit’s north-end neighborhood | Detroit Community Technology Project.

In this post Chief Program Officer, Melissa Huerta outlines Connect Humanity’s grants program and introduces three partners working to advance digital equity.

Connect Humanity exists to support underserved rural and low-income communities to get the fast, affordable internet they need to thrive in today’s digital world. We do this by meeting communities where they are on their path to digital equity, and bringing resources to the table.

Sometimes this means providing tailored investments for community connectivity providers to build and expand networks. But in many cases, before they’re ready to take on investment, communities need support to create, develop, and implement a digital equity strategy. That’s where our grants program comes in.

In the past year, we’ve committed 53 grants, totalling $2.5 million dollars with grants broadly in two categories:

First, supporting individual communities on the path to digital equity.

We work alongside communities to identify their digital needs and how to meet them, usually through the creation of a Digital Equity Connectivity Plan. These provide a rigorous plan of action, covering everything from community engagement, survey work and mapping, technical design, and financial modeling. Critically, they prepare communities for follow-on investment.

We also support community connectivity providers to get “investment ready”, including exploring how to transition their business model to be more financially independent before they can take on investment. And we offer grants for enabling solutions alongside an investment — things like digital skills, relevant content, and workforce development that are necessary for a broadband network to be successful.

Second, promoting a more diverse broadband sector.

There’s no single model to meet the broadband needs of every community. And yet, the profit-driven model has dominated for the past several decades, failing millions of American families who have been left without adequate broadband.

We need a more diverse sector, with different models that can meet the needs of communities where the market won’t provide. Our grants help drive this shift in a number of ways. We’ve funded research on financing and operating models for community connectivity providers. We fund training to promote the skills needed to build and maintain community broadband, through programs like Tribal Broadband Bootcamps. And we’ve convened thousands of civil society organizations to work together on digital equity solutions through the Will for the Web project.

All of this is about helping communities build solutions that improve the lives of families and businesses and build more successful communities.

Here’s how three of our newest partners are making that happen:

Whitney Evans Snardon, COO of Parkridge; Marvene Noel, City Councilwoman; and Katherlyn Geter, Orchard Knob Collaborative (OKC) Project Manager | The Enterprise Center.

The Enterprise Center is showing that connectivity and community health go hand-in-hand

In Orchard Knob, a low-income neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Parkridge Medical Center has donated 1,000 telehealth visits to show how a greater use of online consultations can reduce emergency room visits and improve community health. However, many local residents don’t have broadband access at home, or the devices and skills to use it. And because low-income people are most likely to lack both connectivity and health coverage, the risk is higher that those who could most benefit won’t be reached.

The Enterprise Center, which collaborates with the Historic Orchard Knob Neighborhood Association, is working to ensure those without connectivity get access to the digital skills and tools they need to participate. Our grant has enabled the Enterprise Center to hire a member of the community to lead training for residents so they can get set up to benefit from telehealth visits.

Meanwhile, another project partner, Habitat for Humanity, is modernizing houses in the community that are insulated with horse hair and are suspected to be responsible for high rates of asthma. As these updates are made, there’s an opportunity to simultaneously install fiber, helping to plug connectivity gaps in the community. Showing the interplay of housing, health, and connectivity, the project demonstrates that by tackling these problems together, the quality of life in the community can be drastically improved. For communities, broadband can be expensive, but for the medical industry, it’s incredibly cheap. Viewed through this lens, funding digital equity is one of the most straightforward investments we can make as a society.

Raul Enriquez, Co-Director of Community Technology NY, teaches Digital Stewards in Detroit to build Portable Network Kits. | Detroit Community Technology Project.

Helping the Equitable Internet Initiative find a sustainable business model

For seven years, the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), a program of the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP), has worked with local community anchor organizations to build wireless networks that provide free/low cost high speed internet to unserved and underserved residents in three marginalized Detroit neighborhoods as well as the city of Highland Park. DCTP provides IT support, direct grants, and other resources to its anchor organizations.

They also train residents as Digital Stewards to maintain network infrastructure, organize their communities, and host digital literacy workshops. The Digital Steward program, launched in 2012, has been a model for others across the country.

As demand for EII’s services grows, it sees that its current partnership structure and business model, which relies on grant funding, must evolve to ensure long term sustainability. Our grant supports the organization to develop a model that puts it on that path. This will enable EII to maintain and grow its services, without being dependent solely on philanthropic funding.

Many community connectivity providers meet this moment as they grow and mature. We’re ready to support community providers to graduate from grant funding to taking on investment so they can plan for the long term.

Boyd Stephens at community event at King’s Canvass, Montgomery, Ala. | Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser.

Supporting community networks along the Alabama ‘Black Belt’

Boyd Stephens has a vision to build community networks connecting 12 cities as part of the I85 Cyber Corridor — an information highway alongside the physical highway, enabling the region to build 21st-century industries, create well-paying jobs, and grow its economy. The networks will span Alabama’s ‘Black Belt’, a region named after its black soil and which was developed for plantation agriculture and later become an important center of the civil rights movement. History, politics, and geography mean this heavily rural region is one of the worst connected in the country. With high levels of poverty, it urgently needs economic development and jobs that affordable high-speed internet access can deliver.

We are supporting Stephens and his team with a grant for broadband planning work in four communities in the area. Included are historic neighborhoods in Montgomery that were decimated by the Interstate Highway system in the 1960s and where Stephens’ efforts to improve digital connectivity are helping kick-start new economic development.

The grant will also support the development of sustainable revenue models not exclusively dependent on fees from end users, but may incorporate partnerships with anchor institutions or businesses willing to cover costs as part of their business model. Because, as the Enterprise Center is proving in Chattanooga, the benefits of broadband extend far beyond the end user, with social and economic benefits that ripple through the economy.

In the months ahead, we’ll bring news from these partners and other projects, telling stories, celebrating successes, and sharing lessons learned along the way. If you think a Connect Humanity grant could help your community, complete our funding opportunity form to get started.

About Connect Humanity

This post is part of a series about why Connect Humanity was created and how we see our role in closing the digital divide.

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