When I graduated from high school in the year 2000, it was apparent to me that not every one of my classmates who started kindergarten with me in 1987 were walking across the stage to collect their diplomas, let alone continue on to college. The only fiber we had at the household came from our diets and those nostalgic decorative glass boxes. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, students across the country were consistently made aware of the effects of dropping out of school and the impacts that it could make in your life. At the same time, technology was coming into our homes in the form of America Online (AOL) and other gateways to the World Wide Web. I remember when our household had a separate phone line installed so we can utilize a 56k dial-up internet service and how it felt like the cutting edge. With this vital connection, I was able to research universities, complete my homework assignments, learn about different careers, complete my FAFSA and connect with my friends across the country. Even if the speed was putridly slow, it was the connection to the technology that changed the course of my life forever.
I was fortunate that my hard-working mother had the means to provide me this connection to the internet and a personal computer. Shamefully, at that age it wasn’t apparent to me that many of my peers living in the same city lacked the same access that was afforded to me. In the 1990’s, PCs and dial-up access were expensive and I was oblivious to the fact that there were many households in my own hometown that were left without the same technology that enriched my life. All these sentiments came full circle 20 years later when I learned that the 2016 American Community Survey found that the City of Brownsville, my hometown, was the least connected city with over 50,000 households in the entire United States. Little did I know that the Digital Divide was very much present and vehement in my very own backyard! As a co-founder of a company that aims to strike at the heart of this epidemic, I am now able to do something about it and reverse the effects that this problem has caused for decades.
The first step to fixing most problems involves understanding and acknowledging the root of the problem itself. The Digital Divide is not something to take lightly or believe that it doesn’t affect you or your community. In short, the Merriam-Webster defines the Digital Divide as the “economic, educational and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.” By ignoring this problem, we are doing a disservice to our communities and that long-lasting effects it could have on our resiliency, innovation and sustainable growth. To further understand the impacts of the Digital Divide, we must review the data and statistics to analyze how big the problem is. As was covered recently in the Associated Press and national news cycles and on popular programs such as Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, nearly 3 million students across the United States lack an internet connection in their homes, representing a staggering 18% of their age demographic. Not only do these same students lack an internet connection, they also lack the devices and equipment necessary to connect to the network as well. In other respects, entire swaths of major cities such as my current hometown of San Antonio, Texas are without adequate and affordable internet connection, as was illustrated by the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio (add link). The effects of the Digital Divide have also reached older individuals who are retired and on fixed incomes, lacking the means to connect to their families and friends through popular applications such as FaceTime, Facebook and Google Hangouts. Concurrently, the lack of proper internet is also affecting connectivity of businesses operating across all types including home-based businesses to those along the Main Streets, rural Farm-to-Market roads, and pockets of areas in densely populated areas. The compounding of these effects across the entire cross-section of our communities paints a very frightening picture of the impacts if ignored.
What can we do as a community to utilize partnerships, best practices and financial resources to foster strategies to reduce the effects of these impacts? There are organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, hundreds of dedicated non-profits and local organizations such as the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio who are tackling the problem from all angles and respects. Establishing partnerships and identifying resources to neutralize the effects of the Digital Divide are imperative to solving the problem in each of our communities. Staying informed and engaged with proposed legislation at the state and federal level to achieve the greatest impacts from policies that shape the environment is also critical to framing our respective solutions. For example, it is well-known that the Federal Communication Commission’s Form 477 has major flaws regarding the collection of data from incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which reflects the availability of fixed broadband service at the U.S. Census block level. Due to the U.S. government’s utilization of Form 477 data to determine service availability and eligibility for most federally subsidized broadband grant programs, a major opportunity exists for members of the community, universities, industry experts, stakeholders and digital equity advocates to collaborate and develop innovative solutions that provide greater accuracy of broadband service availability and additional aspects such as affordability and local or state digital inclusion planning efforts. By exploring these strategies as a unified voice, we are able to leverage innovative technology, deployment approaches, and financial resources to ensure the integration of initiatives from local, state and federal non-profit organizations.
Despite the seriousness of the problem we are facing across the nation, we are on the precipice of network deployment solutions that can diverge from what has been done decade after decade in the U.S., which is to be the arbiter of communities and individuals’ fate through the denial of access to technology and connectivity. We have the choice to let business as usual continue, with others choosing our fate for us, or we can regain control of our direction and address the needs of the community. In an age where zip codes, demographics, age, and ethnicity can predict our health, education and livelihood, we must recognize how access to affordable and innovative technology can turn those assumptions upside down due to the opportunities that will be unlocked for students, businesses, government and the elderly. To ensure the strategic alignment of the network with community anchor institutions, school, non-profits, business districts and residents, Lit Communities has integrated community and stakeholder’s needs into our overall assessment process called the Community Assessment and Network Deployment workflow. Through our hard work and determination, communities across the country will begin to realize the impacts of this integrated approach and the evolved conversation regarding Digital Equity, in our own backyards.
Rene Gonzalez is the Chief Strategy Officer at Lit Communities, which provides a full, turnkey solution for building broadband infrastructure for communities of all sizes, enabling them to create digital equity for the residents and businesses. Rene has over 15 years of experience in project management, strategic planning, project development and federal and state grant consulting for public works and infrastructure projects. He has worked in both the private and governmental sectors, which provides a unique ability to strategically align the needs of clients with opportunities to leverage financial assistance from the federal and state government. Over the course of his career he has assisted various municipalities and government entities on obtaining more than $38 million in grant funding for critical infrastructure projects.