Last week at the NACo 2017 Annual Conference, Anne Hazlett, assistant to the secretary for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged the importance of broadband in her speech to attendees, emphasizing that it is "no longer an amenity," and is important for jobs, education, and healthcare in our communities.
The benefits of enhancing broadband access in our communities are significant. Not only economically, but socially as well. The report, Access and Inclusion in the Digital Age: A Resource Guide for Local Governments, states that broadband Internet opens the door to a world of resources for learners of all ages. From early childhood to adult education, access to broadband increases educational opportunities exponentially. As many U.S. communities have seen through the growth of local tech communities, broadband access can also empower new entrepreneurs and foster greater civic engagement.
So what can local governments do to maintain a focus on equity and inclusion while ensuring that all members of society have access to the resources that broadband Internet offers? Answer: Engage.
Proactively engaging the community is an essential first step for expanding broadband access and promoting digital inclusion. Community buy-in will be necessary for successful implementation of any program or initiative. Also, input from the community can help to inform program goals and priorities and raise awareness about community sensitivities that could create obstacles later on. Here's how to get started:
1. Identify a lead organization
Building broadband access calls for a collective impact effort. Research on collective impact suggests five conditions that can support success: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a lead organization. For expanding broadband access, that lead organization is essential to catalyzing action, maintaining momentum, coordinating parts, and building the structure necessary for broadband access that suits the community.
2. Engage other participants
The following key stakeholders should be considered for outreach as local leaders seek to engage the community in program planning and execution:
- The local business community
- The tech and start-up communities
- Local anchor institutions, such as universities and medical centers
- Schools and libraries
- Existing ISPs
- Elected officials
- Local economic development organizations
- Local workforce development organizations
- Community advocates
- The philanthropic community (foundations and nonprofits).
3. Get the public involved
Community education on the benefits and opportunities created by broadband will help to achieve buy-in. An engaged community can be the strongest messengers, help implement solutions, support strategic planning, and provide the lens through which design decisions are made.
Case Study: In Seattle, Washington (Seattle Broadband Speed Test), broadband access leaders deployed apps that quickly tested user download speeds and mapped those speeds so that the community could contribute to building its own map of access. The app not only built wide support for action and lists of supporters, it also created transparency that held providers accountable for advertised speeds and helped them find market opportunities for expansion.
For more on how to successfully implement broadband access in your community, download Access and Inclusion in the Digital Age from the National Resource Network (NRN) and ICMA. This resource guide was developed by and for local governments to address the digital divide in their communities.