Connecting state and local government leaders
A new toolkit from a rural broadband association calls on local leaders to build partnerships, engage in community outreach, and emphasize digital literacy and cybersecurity skills among residents.
With millions of federal dollars available to expand access to broadband internet, an organization that represents rural providers urged its members in a new toolkit to create a digital equity plan in an effort to increase broadband adoption in their communities, close the digital divide and maybe even win crucial federal funding.
The toolkit from NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association coincides with the five-year planning process for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.
It suggests that state broadband offices and rural internet service providers undertake three “broad stages of community planning” that include digital literacy efforts, community outreach and an assessment of connectivity. That way, NTCA said, officials can understand the current state of connectivity and then outline a plan to help increase it.
The first step recommended to providers and states is to tackle a needs assessment and an inventory of assets, both to see how residents use—or could use—broadband internet, and where broadband offices and internet service providers need to increase engagement. That needs assessment will form the first part of a digital equity plan and show where local efforts to increase broadband use are “best focused,” the toolkit says. That assessment can be undertaken via surveys, focus groups, public meetings or individual interviews.
An asset inventory plays a similar role, in that it will help providers and state officials identify existing internet infrastructure, the technologies that residents rely on like wireless, fiber and satellite, and whether that infrastructure supports applications needed by residents, business and government users. The inventory also can help identify community facilities where events can be held to promote digital literacy and cybersecurity, as well as agencies and other groups that could do outreach.
Both those assessments then should result in action plans, NTCA said, which include identifying partners to help meet residents’ needs with engagement, hardware and raising awareness; and collecting data to show how things stand on broadband usage and uptake.
NTCA said in addition to assessing the state of community usage and assets, local leaders should work to promote digital literacy among their residents, an effort that is gaining ground already in schools nationwide. The group said part of promoting digital literacy is introducing people to devices; the various ways they can connect to the internet; and how people can make best use of applications like email and social media.
Part of that digital literacy effort must also include cybersecurity awareness, NTCA said. That includes basic cyber hygiene like updating software, strong passwords, securing Wi-Fi networks, backing up data and protecting against phishing.
“Efforts to increase digital inclusion and engagement can be safely effective only when accompanied by robust cybersecurity practices, including cybersecurity awareness to assist new and current users with protecting their devices, networks and information,” according to the report.
NTCA also said that any digital equity plan must include community outreach, as providers and broadband offices need a “significant understanding” of the people they want to help. Outreach methods may vary and must consider the different needs of different segments of the community.
One crucial segment for officials to engage with are young people, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic “enlightened educators, parents and students to opportunities in distance and remote education and the greater opportunities those tools offer to students, particularly those in rural and insular areas,” the report says. NTCA cited a 2020 study from Michigan State University that found that students without high-speed home internet have lower grades and lower digital skills and are less likely to plan to attend college or university.
NTCA also said senior citizens can benefit from technology, especially in improving mental health conditions and reducing loneliness. Better internet access can also open opportunities for telehealth, and it noted that social media can be a “useful supplement” to boost human interactions, although it cannot entirely replace being face to face.
If done successfully, better access to broadband internet and devices combined with digital literacy are, according to NTCA, “key to bridging the digital divide and opening doors to economic prosperity."
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