Letter from the CEO
Post-pandemic, the need for fast, reliable, affordable broadband is clear beyond doubt. Yet, globally and in the US — where 42 million Americans still live without access to the internet — a deep digital divide remains. Ultimately, a digital society only exists for those who are connected to it.
That’s why Connect Humanity works to accelerate digital equity by providing underserved communities with the access to capital, knowledge, and partners they need to build their own internet and take control of their digital futures.
In this report, you’ll read about some of the people we’re supporting to connect communities in need today. People like Ms. Wanda Manning, a former school teacher who has been at the forefront of an effort to bring fast fiber to East Carroll Parish, one of the poorest towns in the US. You’ll read about our first impact investment in LaShawn Williamson and her team at Wave 7, a Black-owned, woman-led wireless ISP bringing internet access at 3 times the speed and a fraction of the cost of incumbents to hundreds of unconnected residents in Enfield, North Carolina who have struggled for years with unreliable, expensive service. We also feature Matt Rantanen and Chris Mitchell who have pioneered a nationwide program of Tribal Broadband Bootcamps to scale skills that Indigenous Peoples can use to build networks in their communities.
While these stories are inspiring, the people making digital equity happen need more support. Without increased access to financing, knowledge, and the right partners, billions of people are going to continue falling further behind just by staying where they are. That’s why Chris Worman and I founded this organization. We’re grateful for the help we’ve had to build Connect Humanity this year — particularly from the Truist Foundation which has been an integral partner and financial backer in our journey so far.
If you have ideas or feedback about our work, get in touch any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chief Executive, Connect Humanity
We envision a world where every community has access to the knowledge, capital, and partners needed to achieve digital equity.
To accelerate digital equity by supporting, catalyzing, scaling holistic solutions providing people with the internet access and means needed to participate fully in a digital society.
Communities we support
We work with — not for — communities, ensuring they have the resources they need to build a digital future on their terms. In our first year, we've supported communities spanning the US from California to Appalachia. In the coming year, we will serve many more areas across the country and begin to expand our footprint to support communities outside of the United States.
$1.5 million grants made
Supporting community broadband planning, research development, capacity building, and digital skills training.
$2.5 million investments committed
Financing broadband networks that provide fast, affordable, reliable internet in unserved and underserved communities.
$17.7 million funds leveraged
Our programs and financing led to follow-on investments, multiplying the impact of our capital for communities.
10 planning grants completed
Enabling communities to build the Digital Equity Connectivity Plans they need to improve internet access and use.
70 Indigenous communities served
Through the Indigenous Connectivity Institute's programs, these communities are better prepared to build a digital future on their terms.
Our first impact investment closed
With a $350,000 financing package enabling Wave 7 Communications to reach 400 more families in the low-income, rural town of Enfield, North Carolina.
3 research projects completed
Helping to develop the ecosystem that supports community connectivity providers to succeed and accelerate progress to close the digital divide.
Our first impact investment
For two years, LaShawn Williamson and her team have been building a network to provide families with fast, reliable internet access in Enfield — a low-income, rural community in North Carolina. They have connected 70 households to date, and they’re just getting started. To support LaShawn to connect more families and businesses, Connect Humanity has invested in her company: Wave 7 Communications.
We have provided a blended investment package of $350,000 to enable Wave 7 to reach 400+ additional subscribers in Enfield — almost two-thirds of the town’s population — and to advance its efforts to reach a further 1,600 households in neighboring towns.
“Connect Humanity understands our pain points, can speak our language, and understand that in rural areas the economics are different and that bringing costs down is key for sustainability. Brian Vo and team treated us as partners to develop a strategic plan for the growth of our business, and put together a sustainable package to finance it. Neighboring towns are already asking, “will you come here”. This backing lets us start thinking about expanding beyond Enfield, which will make the network more sustainable in the long term.”
“Brian Vo and team treated us as partners to develop a strategic plan for the growth of our business, and put together a sustainable package to finance it. ”
As our first impact investment, this marks a major milestone in Connect Humanity’s journey as a funder. We’re thrilled that it is with the Wave 7 team — who uphold so many of the values and goals we had when we set up our organization, around equity, community, and financial sustainability.
Learn more about the investment and read our interview with LaShawn Williamson.
A program to Build Better Broadband
With the US on the verge of making its biggest-ever government investments in broadband expansion through the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, communities need to prepare now with robust broadband plans to position themselves to receive their share of the funding.
That’s why we provide Digital Equity Planning Grants as a core part of our work — and why we were thrilled to recently announce the six grant recipients of our Build Better Broadband program, supporting communities in California, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Broadband plans are foundational to a community’s efforts to build a robust, sustainable network that properly serves the needs of local people. They not only identify the appropriate technology and business models for a network, they help foster community support, increasing a network’s likelihood of success and making it a more attractive investment for funders.
“When I visit community leaders, they all recognize the value and impact of last-mile connectivity, but the question always is ‘How do we physically do it?’. This grant from Connect Humanity helps answer that question.”
With these pieces in place, communities can attract the follow-on investment needed to make their digital equity ambitions a reality — whether that be from the BEAD program or other sources of grants and investments.
Read more about the Build Better Broadband grantees.
A new institute for Indigenous Connectivity
Unique challenges of politics, geography, and economics mean that Indigenous communities in North America are among the most underserved by internet connectivity. To help bridge this divide, we have launched the Indigenous Connectivity Institute.
Led by an advisory committee of Indigenous leaders, the Institute is a community of network builders, policy experts, and community advocates sharing knowledge, shaping policy, and helping Indigenous communities learn the skills to build and run their own internet networks.
In October, the Institute brought this community together at the 6th annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit, in Winnipeg, Canada. This marked a milestone as the Summit became a truly Indigenous-led event — and is already leading to advocacy around spectrum policy which would be transformative for communities across North America.
The Institute has just hosted the last Tribal Broadband Bootcamp of 2022 in California, capping off a year of events building the skills Indigenous communities need to build wireless networks in their communities. This project, championed by Matt Rantanen and Chris Mitchell, now has a permanent home within the Institute. The program will grow in 2023, with eight bootcamps currently scheduled, including the first two in Canada.
Read more about the Indigenous Connectivity Institute.
Field-building research to advance digital equity
Beyond supporting specific communities with the broadband solutions they need, we are helping to build the ecosystem of community-led efforts to close the digital divide, including with field-building research.
In partnership with Candid, we published an analysis of philanthropic giving to causes working to close the digital divide in the last decade. The result? Just 0.05% of grants from large US foundations have gone to digital equity causes. The report serves as a rallying cry for funders to engage in digital equity issues and consider how internet access intersects with the causes they invest in.
Major Federal Funding to Close the Digital Divide Won’t Succeed Without Philanthropic Support - By Lynette Bell and Larry Irving
We also published a report on Financing mechanisms for locally-owned internet infrastructure. To help more communities build alternatives to incumbent internet service providers, this report provides a blueprint to help people understand how to structure and finance affordable, reliable community-led broadband in areas that have been underserved by traditional ISPs.
Building the Will for the Web
Finally, we conducted the largest ever survey of civil society’s digital equity needs, with 7,500+ people from 150+ countries taking part. We’ll soon release a report presenting the data and building the case that there is an urgent need to invest in digital infrastructure to enable civil society organizations across the world to effectively serve their communities.
This survey kicked off the Will for the Web initiative — our largest, most inclusive community program yet, creating a space for civil society to come together and work towards solutions to advance digital equity. Together we are gathering data, generating solutions, and advocating for action that will help to ensure everyone is able to participate fully in today’s digitized world.
The battle to bring fast fiber to East Carroll Parish
Jerry Hawkins, East Carroll Parish resident
Jerry Hawkins, East Carroll Parish resident
“Be happy with what you have”
This is what a customer service representative told a long-term resident of East Carroll Parish when she called to ask for better broadband service.
Like most people in town, her internet service was slow, unreliable, and expensive. She was not happy with what she had.
East Carroll Parish is a rural, low-income community sitting on the west bank of the Mississippi River by Lake Providence, Louisiana. Almost half of residents live below the poverty line and almost two in three have no internet subscription.
Poverty and digital inequity go hand in hand
As in many poor, rural communities, traditional internet service providers have not invested in improving internet infrastructure there because they do not see it as lucrative. The resulting gaps in high-speed internet reinforce the town’s economic struggles. While East Carroll has a desperate need for jobs, businesses are put off from investing because they can’t get the fast broadband they need to thrive. And most people don’t have the connection they would need for remote work.
When Covid-19 hit, things went from bad to worse. Ms. Wanda Manning, now retired, was a teacher in the local elementary school. As classes moved online she saw that many of her students weren’t able to log in because they lacked internet access and digital devices. Witnessing these children miss out on their education, Ms. Manning realized the community was going to have to take matters into their own hands.
“The pandemic was the tipping point. We are building our own internet network to bring new jobs to the community, to improve schooling for students, and to enable residents to access healthcare without driving 70 miles for an appointment. We are bringing hope and opportunity — and we’re doing it on our terms” - Ms. Wanda Manning
“The pandemic was the tipping point.”
A community taking control of its digital future
Spurred by the connectivity gaps made painfully clear by the pandemic, people in East Carroll started to organize and Ms. Manning, along with other advocates working with church-based coalition Delta Interfaith, formed an internet taskforce.
In February 2021, the group secured a grant from satellite internet firm Starlink to provide emergency connectivity to low-income families with school-aged children. 120 satellite dishes were distributed to residents with two years of free service. For those who received the service, the benefits were immediate. For some, it was life-changing. Like Latanya Gray Swift who was able to secure a well-paid remote job as a service representative for Apple, eliminating her 60-mile daily commute.
This partnership was just the first step — and Delta Interfaith started work on an ambitious plan to bring reliable, affordable fiber internet to all residents in East Carroll.
To turn this ambition into a reality, Connect Humanity provided a grant to create a Digital Equity Connectivity Plan. These plans include community engagement to understand what residents want, technical designs to build or expand a network, and analysis to define the finances and human resources needed to turn a project from shovel-worthy to shovel-ready.
“Building your own internet network isn’t easy. Funding, technical knowledge, willing partners, political will and community backing — all of this is hard work. Connect Humanity has been a god-send for the project, helping us with financing, knowhow, and connections to move forward.”
A $4 million grant to build a fiber network fit for the 21st century
Armed with their plan, the taskforce secured a partnership with rural internet service provider Conexon Connect to design and build a 220-mile fiber-to-the-home network. East Carroll then became one of the first communities to be awarded with a GUMBO grant from the state of Louisiana, winning $4 million to help fund the network.
East Carroll residents were on their way to a better digital future. Service would be available to 2,500 homes and businesses and offer customers some of the fastest connectivity in the country with symmetrical gigabit upload and download speeds with plans starting at just $49.95 a month.
Sparklight CableOne tries to derail the network
Just as they were about to break ground, incumbent provider Sparklight Cable One launched an 11th-hour protest in a bid to block the GUMBO award and derail their network.
Delta Interfaith and the East Carroll community were not going to bow to Cable One's brazen attempt to keep out competition. With the support of Connect Humanity and other allies, they told their story, holding press conferences, meeting with local political representatives, speaking with local and national media, and organizing petition letters.
After adding weeks of delay, the Louisiana Broadband Office ultimately made the right call and rejected Cable One’s challenge. But the protest has kept families in East Carroll waiting longer still for the internet access they deserve. While celebrating their victory, residents of East Carroll remain vigilant as they brace for further roadblocks from Cable One.
Delta Interfaith is determined to build their network regardless of what happens with their GUMBO grant.
“Soon children will have the connection they need to do their school work from home. Local businesses will have broadband fit for the 21st century at a price they can afford. And we will no longer have to drive 70 miles for a doctor’s visit when an online consultation will do. This network means a better future for folks living in East Carroll.” - Ms. Wanda Manning
Connect Humanity has continued to support our partners in East Carroll Parish as we work with them to line up the rest of the financing they need.
A story happening across the US
East Carroll’s experience should act as a warning to communities across the US. As more government broadband funding flows, communities must be ready not only to win these grants, but to protect themselves from incumbent ISPs who are ready with armies of lawyers and lobbyists to try to shut down competition from community-owned networks.
Those of us who care about digital equity need to support these communities. Connect Humanity is ready to partner with funders, advocates, and policymakers to work with our community partners to make sure they get the broadband they deserve.
Read more about Delta Interfaith's fight for fiber in East Carroll.
Coming in 2023
Having built the foundations of Connect Humanity in 2022, next year we’ll be scaling our work to support even more communities to remove barriers to digital equity. These are some of the projects we’re most excited about:
Connecting from campus to communities
82% of Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) are located in broadband deserts. In partnership with the Student Freedom Initiative, we will launch a program to extend broadband from HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to local communities, so that all students and residents have the digital tools they need to succeed.
Preparing Appalachia communities for better broadband
Some of the least digitally connected communities in the US are located across the Appalachian region. They urgently need investment to build internet networks fit for the 21st century. We will support 50 communities to build Digital Equity Connectivity Plans so they are prepared and eligible to secure government funding to build broadband infrastructure.
Launching a fund to leverage CRA financing to close the digital divide
We plan to launch a pair of funds that would use Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) dollars to expand internet access for communities living in the Texas-Mexico border region. One fund will be designed to help businesses get online and digitize their operations. The other will provide funds to help communities meet matching requirements so they can win government broadband funding (BEAD).
Digitalization is happening. Digital equity depends on all of us.
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Donors and financial partners
- Association for Progressive Communications
- Filecoin Foundation
- Ford Foundation
- Humanity United
- Hewlett Foundation
- Hilton Foundation
- Institute for Local Self-Reliance
- Internet Society
- Mastercard Foundation
- Okta for Good
- Schmidt Futures