Focus on a Fellow: Wesley Smith

Almost a year into their placements, our American Connection Corps fellows continue their work to connect residents across the heartland to high quality, affordable broadband access. Wesley Smith, placed with the Knox County Development Corporation and Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, has made real progress for the community throughout his time as a fellow. 

Wesley has worked to enroll members of the Knoxville community in the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), now called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Through collaboration with organizations on the ground and partnerships with internet service providers, Wesley successfully enrolled dozens of households in affordable internet service through the program and distributed information on EBB to more than 250 families. 

Partnering with the  other American Connection Corps fellows across Tennessee and organizations involved in closing the digital divide, Wesley discovered how else he could make an impact. He learned about a program in Chattanooga that had transformed the way the city helped its residents gain access to high-speed internet, digital literacy resources and other opportunities.

After hearing about the program, Wesley envisioned what a similar program could look like in Knoxville. “One thing I’m proud of is we’re not just trying to tie people to things online – we’re working to tie people to both the internet and their communities,” he said. As he worked on the program design, which is still in progress, Wesley made sure to touch on many elements of connectivity, including maps of connection locations, digital literacy classes, programs for low income individuals and more. He explained, “Through this work within communities we’re helping bring people and organizations into the digital age while bringing people into a physical place, not just a digital one, to create community togetherness through internet connection.”

One of Wesley’s goals for his participation as an American Connection Corps fellow was to bring his academic background in systems theory to his role with the hope of creating resources and programs that can last far beyond his time as a fellow. 

In his words, “We have to be cognizant of whom we are serving in order to make sure that everyone can be reached, which has been a very helpful way to frame the work I’ve engaged in.” He believes he can work toward meeting this goal through the new Knoxville program.

At Heartland Forward, we look forward to watching Wesley and our other fellows continue to make an impact in their communities through the remainder of their placements.

Focus on a Fellow: Liz Lima

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently launched the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a permanent replacement for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) which launched during the pandemic using emergency COVID funds. While the programs are slightly different, the goal is the same – help close the digital divide that persists across our country by getting people connected to affordable internet service. 

As an American Connection Corps Fellow placed with Rural LISC in Central Ohio, Liz Lima has already made an impact on this front by working to understand the lessons learned from the EBB to help increase enrollment in the ACP. She recently spearheaded the creation of an innovative mapping tool that overlays enrollment data from the EBB with census data on the communities that have the highest levels of eligibility for the program. This tool can help target outreach for the ACP by pinpointing the communities where large populations of people are likely eligible for the program, but haven’t yet taken advantage of it.

Liz had the opportunity to present this tool to the FCC, which, in her words, was “surreal.” She hopes that this tool will benefit communities as they work to get their residents connected: “The goal of the map is to help local governments, organizations and Digital Navigators see how EBB has impacted their community, who all is eligible, and where ACP outreach is needed most,” she said.

Another aspect of Liz’s work with Rural LISC is supporting their Digital Navigators program, which in just a year and a half has served about 2,000 clients and distributed nearly 1,000 devices. In addition to helping clients access connections and become familiar with devices, Digital Navigators train individuals in basic computer skills and provide regular follow-ups to meet their needs, on client timeline. 

Liz is most proud of how this work has impacted people who might not typically be thought of as lacking digital literacy. “The average age of our clients is 42 years old and the median is 39…but you hear a lot about the term ‘digital skills’ and we assume that it’s a lot of elderly individuals who have a digital skills gap, when in reality, it’s working-age who adults need this assistance too,” she said. 

Liz credits her placement with Rural LISC for increasing her awareness of the issues around internet connectivity, and granting her a greater understanding of the challenges facing the heartland. She added, “You take for granted having your bills on autopay or being able to jump online quickly – you have this mentality of, who doesn’t have the internet? But it’s millions of people.”

Here at Heartland Forward, we’re proud of the important and innovative ways in which Liz and our other American Connection Corps Fellows are working to connect the heartland and close the digital divide.

Focus on a Fellow: Carly Fitz

Access to high-speed internet is as essential for life in the 21st century as basic utilities like water, gas or electricity. In her placement as an American Connection Corps Fellow, Carly Fitz has seen how residents of rural Perry County, Ohio are falling behind due to their lack of access to affordable internet. In her fellowship role as an Access Specialist for Perry County with the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, she hopes to change this and bring economic renewal to the region through improved high-speed internet access.

When starting in her position, it became clear that existing data documenting regional internet access capacity and connection speeds was outdated and did not accurately reflect the needs of Perry County. To address this, Carly traveled throughout the region to educate residents on how to perform internet speed testing and she distributed 1,850 flyers to homes in the area to encourage them to take the speed test. This was key to ensuring that the Buckeye Hills Regional Council had the most up-to-date connectivity data to identify the areas of greatest need. Equipped with this new information, Carly was ready to get to work.

As a critical next step, Carly created a Broadband Advisory Committee in Perry County, consisting thus far of 15 representatives from the local libraries, schools and other development organizations. The new organization will hold its first meeting in January 2022 and will help shape the county’s connectivity future.

The committee has three subcommittees to effectively tackle the different needs and challenges of the region as they arise. The infrastructure subcommittee will focus on expanding broadband infrastructure through collaboration between funders and internet service providers. Once the needed infrastructure is in place, the affordability subcommittee can work to increase access to affordable at-home connections through federal grants and through initiatives like those of the nonprofit, PCs for People. Finally, once affordable access is established, the digital literacy subcommittee will work to ensure that residents are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to get online in their daily lives. One specific initiative Carly hopes to continue under the committee’s direction is an effort to connect Perry County senior citizens with high school seniors to learn basic computer and technology skills.

In addition to her work to create a Broadband Advisory Committee, Carly contributed to several other important efforts in the county. By working with local internet service providers, she was able to encourage the development of new lines that brought service to 500 previously unserved households. Furthermore, Carly’s efforts to identify the areas of greatest need in the region helped internet service providers reach 9,450 new applications for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program. She has also supported a local fiber technician training program (part of the state’s efforts to build up the internet infrastructure workforce) and hopes to continue to expand those efforts.

When Carly began her fellowship, one of her primary goals was to be hyper-local in her efforts, saying, “I think that the way to be successful with this effort is to connect small areas with the greatest need slowly. I’m trying to take these little pockets in the county that need local phone service as well as high-speed internet and connect all of those areas to each other.” She hopes that her work can contribute to not only the growth of the county’s economy, but also its sense of community. Heartland Forward is excited to see what Carly and all of our American Connection Corps fellows can accomplish in their work to bridge the digital divide.

Focus on a Fellow: Mary Gay

Following the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill –– communities across the country and in the heartland will start to receive an unprecedented amount of funding to close the digital divide. Even with the $65 billion in funding, important challenges remain –– these funds must be effectively disseminated to maximize the impact in the communities that need it most. That’s why Mary Gay’s role as a Heartland Forward American Connection Corps fellow working for the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois is so crucial.

Mary made the decision to serve as a fellow, in the area where she went to college, following her graduation from Washington University in St. Louis. She was excited for the learning opportunity her fellowship provided, saying, “Even though I came into this position not knowing a lot about broadband, the pandemic made it clear how vital strong internet connection is to thrive in today’s world. The more I learn about it the more motivated I am to make change in this area as a fellow.”

In her role at the Leadership Council, Mary helps implement the Illinois Connected Communities Strategic Plan Key Regional Priorities. Specifically, she is spearheading the development of a broadband grant “war room” from which the Leadership Council can identify funding sources, timelines and criteria for available grants to expand broadband access.

Through this work, Mary created a page on the Leadership Council website called “Broadband Funding Opportunities.” She keeps the website updated with available broadband grants found through research. This first of its kind, one-stop shop for the community provides background on who is providing the funding, eligibility requirements, relevant dates, award details and supporting information about the grant and sponsoring organization. The website also has additional resources, including federal grant-finding tools, information on broadband issues, and links through which individuals can find affordable internet in their community.

This tool aims to address the needs of organizations in Illinois’ Metro East region by providing a centralized location for individuals and organizations to access funding opportunities. While the Leadership Council is locally focused, the list Mary created predominantly outlines federal funding that’s available to states beyond Illinois, making it a valuable tool for organizations across the country.

Mary’s motivation for creating this tool comes from issues she identified in the grant-seeking process. “I think it is important to have a place where people interested in pursuing broadband related projects can go to look for funding easily,” Mary says. “It is a time-consuming process, and having a list in one place where people can see immediately if they are eligible, how much they can get, and what it is for, will save them a lot of time.”

In the short time this new resource has been up and running, stakeholders in the region have utilized it to easily locate and apply for grants to receive funding for broadband projects. Mary plans to continue updating the website throughout the duration of her fellowship with available opportunities. Her work will remain a resource for the region to ensure no available opportunity to connect more people with broadband goes unnoticed, and Heartland Forward is proud to support her work.

Four Principles to Maximize the Impact of Federal Spending on Connectivity in the Heartland

By: Angie Cooper, Chief Program Officer of Heartland Forward

The recent signing of the federal infrastructure package is welcome news in the fight to close the digital divide across the heartland. Containing billions of dollars in funding to expand broadband access across the country, this legislation holds great promise to improve life for everyday Americans — especially the estimated 40 million Americans who still lack access to the reliable, affordable high-speed internet needed to participate fully in our digital age. Now the real work begins to make sure every dollar is spent efficiently and in service of the communities it’s intended to help.

In light of historic investments in high-speed internet, the question of closing the digital divide has shifted from “Where will we find the resources?” to “How can we most effectively deploy the resources we have?” With the risk of accidental overlap and waste, ensuring that the funding allocated in the recently passed federal infrastructure bill reaches the people who need it most will require an unwavering commitment to the public good and strategic, ongoing coordination between local, state and federal stakeholders. 

Since Heartland Forward launched our Connecting the Heartland initiative to help close the digital divide, we have had the opportunity to engage with policymakers, subject matter experts, community leaders, digital equity advocates and residents across the heartland. We feel their hope and optimism for a not-too-distant future where every resident has access to high-speed internet at a price they can afford, and the skills and know-how to take full advantage of the opportunities that come with connectivity. We also sense their fear that some communities will be left behind if we are not intentional about how we move forward in this historic moment.

To that end, our work through Connecting the Heartland in the coming months and years will be anchored in four guiding principles:

  1. Public investments in high-speed internet should lift everyone up. The long-term success depends on having consumers who can afford the service, understand and trust its relevance for improving their lives and the skills to know how to use it.
  2. Communities should drive solutions that meet their own unique needs. Too many communities, especially smaller ones, are not currently prepared to leverage new funds to bring connectivity to their communities. They need to be empowered with independent information, expertise and authority to develop plans based on their own local needs and circumstances.
  3. Regulations and standards should maximize today’s investments for long-term impact. The amount of funding and post-pandemic momentum we are seeing now is not likely to be repeated in the decades ahead. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to make sure every household has access to internet service that can facilitate full participation in the digital world. Regulations and standards should be designed to encourage maximum efficiency in the deployment process, transparency and speeds that will meet tomorrow’s needs.
  4. Access to high-speed internet will positively impact our economy. As ambitious and urgent as the need to close the digital divide is in the heartland and across America, this moment provides an opportunity to do even more. Public funds spent to increase access to internet service can serve double-duty in addressing other needs, from healthcare quality and access, to education and training, to job creation. 

There is hard work to be done to put these principles into action. But the clock is ticking, and the stakes have never been higher. We know it will take commitment and collaboration across all sectors and all levels of government. We are ready for the ground game in our states and communities. We invite other organizations and policymakers to join us.

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