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This week, I am thrilled to join state, local, and tribal leaders from across the United States as we gather in Cleveland, Ohio for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and longtime advocate for digital inclusion, I’m proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities have chosen Cleveland, one of the nation’s least connected cities, as the site for a timely conversation on the how we can effectively spend unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While federal infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes the challenges that states and tribes must overcome to ensure funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center – where it needs to be – and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get there.

Here are three key lessons I’ve learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community-driven and sustainable.

1. Call on local leadership, now

Across the country, regions that have dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outperforming their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make it happen in a way that supports key priorities, and where the real needs lie. We’ve seen benefits in cities like Detroit and Seattle that have taken this approach.

We need to support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders in rural communities and urban “digital deserts” identify gaps in broadband. NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while having solid funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts in long-term state programs to solidify funding and strengthen the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs flourish during the investment period, but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships and time, resulting in discontinuous programs that are unable to meet resident needs or build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that enable aging in place and telemedicine care for the elderly. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, could place a higher priority on K-12 STEM education and pipelines. This alignment will allow heads of state to prioritize and embed sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and integrate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pool of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, politics and IT work. basic digital inclusion needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states didn’t even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already distributed to states, we are at a critical juncture.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in fall 2022 and will include leading faculty and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current wave of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have a knack for starting with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally fair future we’re fighting for is closer than it’s ever been before – let’s make sure we get it right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is president of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering agents of change in all sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has developed cutting-edge programs and tools to impact digital inclusion locally and nationally, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) , community trainings and data collection efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports the visionaries who are building tomorrow’s technologies based on the connected world we helped create. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast welcomes feedback from knowledgeable observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected] Opinions expressed in expert reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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