In South Florida, a coalition of community, heath and technology groups have developed an innovative project, in an attempt to bring digital access to all in the area.
During Palm Beach County’s stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community realized just how many residents lacked fundamental digital access. In April of 2020, the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and the Palm Beach County school district led initial discussions on the issue.
The county commission developed workgroups to advise the county government on navigating the pandemic, and the initial focus was to ensure that all students could participate in remote learning.
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Now, forty government, education, business, health, and local and national foundations are collaborating to address improve digital access in the Palm Beach County area. The project addresses all three aspects of the digital divide – broadband, devices and training.
Since the project began, over 73,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to students. More than 5,600 broadband subscriptions have been paid for and 2,400 hotspots distributed to meet internet needs. More than $65 million in funding has been dedicated to addressing the issue so far.
While access to broadband and devices are often the center of discussion, certain groups involved in the work realized that more needed to be done.
“When the schools switched to online learning last spring, it became apparent that many children were in need of broadband and devices,” says Randy Scheid, chief strategy officer for the Quantum Foundation. “But we also realized that in specific areas of Palm Beach County, there was a need for more digital education, which is how we came up with our digital navigator program.”
The Quantum Foundation funds initiatives that improve the health of Palm Beach County communities. It, along with other partners in the coalition, teamed up with Community Partners of South Florida, a group that helps children and families facing adversity, to help fund the digital inclusion initiative.
Nick Savage, digital inclusion director for Community Partners, has a special way of talking to people who are searching for help.
“Listen first and say: What do you think you need?” Savage says. “Don’t make the mistake of assuming you know what they need.”
That’s why the coalition’s first step was to put surveys out to the community about digital access, to make sure they were in listening mode. They found that different people need different things.
Seniors are often seeking virtual contact with their family and friends, the ability to do telehealth and pay their bills online, while younger people want access to a broader array of digital tools and skills. Identifying the specific needs helps the program prioritize what is pertinent to each client they help, and what’s most urgent.
“During the pandemic, we’ve largely just been in survival mode. We asked, what does a person need right now to get by?” Savage says. “But as we emerge, we can start looking at other levels of education.”
They’ve developed sustainable ways to educate the community by training young people in fundamental digital skills then using them to educate older residents and others in need. The students get community service hours for their efforts.
But Savage says that for everyone to really be able to take advantage of their blossoming project, broadband needs to be treated like a utility, and reliable devices need to be in the hands of people, especially those who historically lack access.
Palm Beach County and other members of the coalition came up with an idea to help those without internet access: a municipal Wi-Fi mesh network. It’s created by connecting fiber optic cable to root radios. Then, the root radios are connected to mesh radios which provide the Wi-Fi signal to users within the municipality. Identified families will be provided a Wi-Fi extender to capture the signal from the radios and broadcast the internet connection in their homes.
The entire digital access project centers around five components, which the project coordinators believe will address the issue of the digital divide in a holistic way.
Infrastructure: Fiber, radios and towers necessary to build networks.
Quality devices: The school district’s goal is for every student and every teacher to have access to a laptop with a camera for distance learning. The county is also pursuing a partnership with a vendor that can recycle and refurbish donated technology. This would create a way for local companies to contribute by donating computers, and also create a sustainable revenue stream for the Wi-Fi network project through selling the refurbished devices for a low-cost.
Reliable broadband: In the short term, the school district provided hotspots and internet subscriptions to families, but the effort now focuses on the long-term solution of free Wi-Fi through the mesh network.
Affordability: The Wi-Fi network is also expected to meet this need.
Community Technology Navigators: Community technology navigators provide in-home technical support and community digital literacy training to make sure that families can use technology to make a difference in their lives.
Organizations have rallied to make the project successful. Several partners have donated to support broadband efforts, devices and digital navigators. Business partners such as Comcast, AT&T, T-Mobile, Florida Power and SBA Communications are donating infrastructure for broadband access.
As Florida moves forward after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Palm Beach County project seeks to not only help those who are in need, but to grow the program into an economically beneficial project for the entire area.
“Right now, we have been concentrating on how to solve the problem,” Savage says. “But, what are the benefits? The economy is going to grow. More jobs, more opportunity for training, quality employment, employees and quality of life. This kind of work can only benefit our community in the long run.”
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to Digital Access for All.