Bridging the digital divide: Three questions community leaders should consider
As nearly every aspect of our society becomes more reliant on technology, the need for ubiquitous, data-rich connectivity is imperative, even as the definition of broadband continues to evolve. The opportunity gap between those who have affordable access to advanced digital infrastructure and those who do not continues to grow, leaving many behind. Community leaders have an obligation to create a community-wide strategy that addresses the digital divide. While there are many facets in a successful plan, it is recommended that communities focus on maximizing impact, proactively address potential roadblocks, and strike the right balance between cost, control and accountability.
What are the most impactful outcomes, and how can this transform our community?
The last year has underscored the necessity and opportunities available to communities with state-of-the-art broadband. These range from opportunities for remote work, distance learning and telemedicine, all the way to smart city technologies, remote surgery and applied innovation. A digitally fluent community provides an attractive workforce for prospective businesses.
In Cumberland County, N.C., COVID-19 put a glaring spotlight on our IT infrastructure limitations, especially when it came to keeping students connected. To accommodate the shift to 100 percent remote learning, our school system deployed 80 Wi-Fi hotspot school buses and added 100 wireless access points to the exterior of school buildings to connect more than 7,500 students to whom service was not available.
To help our students, residents, small businesses and entrepreneurs, our community (city, county, municipalities and utility services) enacted a series of efforts, policies and legislation to facilitate the installation of advanced infrastructure (agnostic of provider), resulting in Indiana-based MetroNet announcing a communitywide fiber optic network buildout—which is currently under construction.
What is our plan to overcome potential hurdles and roadblocks?
There is no “one size fits all” solution. Every community will face unique challenges, whether legislative constraints, topographical impediments or achieving a viable cost structure. Ultimately, your plan should seek to ensure availability, affordability and adoption across all segments of your community. Beyond the costs of deploying infrastructure, how will you make the service affordable, even for low-income citizens? At the beginning of the pandemic, pewresearch.org reported 59 percent of lower income parents anticipated at least one digital obstacle while their children were doing schoolwork from home. Whether through implementing public programs that reduce cost, or through private sector partnerships, failing to address affordability only exacerbates existing inequalities. Prior to the first connections, a coordinated program of education, communication and advocacy can increase adoption, ensuring benefits to constituencies hesitant to connect.
Lastly, it is imperative that communities maintain focus on the broader goal of community-wide service. While smaller projects may provide connectivity to dense subdivisions or the customers of certain utilities, a piecemeal approach may ultimately make it substantially more difficult and expensive to serve the remainder.
How do we find the right balance between control, cost, and accountability?
With strong local leadership and a bold vision, communities must ultimately work to find the right balance between control, cost and accountability. While high level of direct investment may give you more control of the project, building and/or operating a municipal broadband system may not be right for your community (or even legal, depending on your state’s laws). On the other hand, recruiting a private sector company to build in your community may keep costs low, but not provide your municipality the results sought. For most communities, the middle ground of a public-private partnership will provide the most feasible and affordable results. Through a combination of public funding, grants and partnerships with private sector providers, communities can ensure the entire community benefits while creating a viable cost environment for companies.
Working with key partners—including anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries, public utilities, electric co-ops, and state and federal funding sources—it is possible to build a comprehensive strategy tailored to meet the specific needs of your community.
Just as water and electricity became essential services a century ago, broadband is now a necessary utility for our citizens. Simply put, communities need fiber-optic networks and advanced data infrastructure to remain competitive and to allow residents and businesses to compete on the global stage. As community leaders, we have an obligation and responsibility to develop successful strategies for the deployment of these technologies and to ensure they are implemented in a way which everyone can reap the benefits. This is a unique and time sensitive opportunity for cities and counties to play a transformative role in the lives of their citizens.
With nearly 20 years of economic development and urban planning experience, Robert Van Geons has been president and CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation since 2017, announcing more than $225 million in new investment and 2,000 jobs with international and domestic companies. His team is committed to building a dynamic and business friendly community, leveraging next generation technologies and a uniquely skilled workforce. Van Geons believes that successful communities prosper when the public and private sectors work together.