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Lessons learned: Connected Nation staff attends NDIA Net Inclusion Conference

Philadelphia (March 12, 2024) - Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted an early spring, but the 2024 Net Inclusion conference kicked off last month as a beautiful blanket of snow fell from the sky in downtown Philadelphia.

Did that deter the 1,300 attendees? Of course not. As we all know, when you are an advocate for digital inclusion, obstacles are a part of the job. Over the three-day conference, a passion for change and inclusion was palpable — an ever-steady hum of possibilities between each discussion.

The first Net Inclusion conference took place in 2016 in a Kansas City library with a handful of attendees. The National Digital Inclusion Association (NDIA) wasn’t even an official 501(c)(3) yet. Angela Seifer, Executive Director of NDIA, was momentarily speechless as she took in the packed room at the 2024 conference in comparison.

“Who would have thought we’d one day have 1,300 people gathered in one room to talk about inclusion back when this started?” she said, adding that as much as she had hoped for that to happen, the reality was so much better.

By far, the highlight of Day 1 was a fireside chat with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. Seifer did not hold back, getting straight to the elephant in the room: “What are we going to do about ACP, the life-changing program that provides families all over the nation with affordable broadband services?”

Originally adapted in January 2022, the Affordable Connectivity Program has provided financial assistance and broadband access to 23 million homes across America, enabling them to afford this essential tool for health care, school, work, and so much more. To put it in perspective, that amounts to 1 in 6 U.S. homes.

When the announcement came on January 11, 2024, just two years after its inception, that Congress would no longer be funding this critical program, advocates for digital inclusion came together to fight back.

But, despite the demands from entities all over the country, the FCC was forced to put a freeze on any new ACP enrollments and notify millions of families that their service bills will increase drastically in the coming months — an increase most of them cannot afford. Seifer, representing the collective advocates in the room, wanted to know how we are meant to move forward with our mission with such a heavy loss.

“We’re not going to solve the Digital Divide from our chairs,” said Rosenworcel. “We need to deepen our trust in local communities.” Advocates should be immersed in each community, speaking to those who know it, and the needs of its people, best.

“Local individuals trusted in the communities really matter,” continued Rosenworcel, her words echoing across the ballroom. “We have to continue to tell the story of how vital this program (ACP) has been … and make a long-term effort to digital equity.”

If we are going to make a difference and continue the fight toward digital inclusion, bridging the gap in the Digital Divide, then we will need to strengthen our relationships with the ones who have fallen through the chasm.

A call to continued action

Over the course of the next few days, conference attendees divided into small groups, participating in workshops, panel discussions, and interactive sessions all focused on digital sustainability, equity, education, and access. Leaders in their respective fields, along with community program directors, discussed how impactful even the smallest step toward inclusion can be, encouraging those in attendance to seek out opportunities to improve their communities wherever possible.

During the panel discussion, “Building Inclusive Intergenerational Technology Programs,” high school students from the nonprofit YourTechQ, a member of Connected Nation’s Teens Teach Tech initiative, discussed just how vital education is to those with access, and how they are doing just that – making a concentrated difference in their communities.

“We realized that many of the older adults who have phones and tablets aren’t sure how to use them,” Shomik Sen responded, when asked why he and Anisha Dasgupta created YourTechQ.

“We were constantly helping our family members during the COVID lockdown to do any and everything on their phones.” Anisha added, “and we realized, there is no way they are the only ones struggling with this problem. Digital skills aren’t inherent, and those who didn’t grow up with this technology like we are need our help.”

Access is vital to every household, a necessity as much as food and water in this growing tech age. But just as important — and another common theme throughout the Net Inclusion conference — is knowing how to navigate the internet and use individual devices safely and confidently.

Despite of the frustrating loss of ACP, Seifer addressed the crowd on the final day of the conference, reminding them that their actions and compassion matter.

“We can’t lose our momentum now,” she said, challenging every attendee to keep moving forward.  The key to holistic inclusion, according to Seifer, is a robust digital inclusion ecosystem. Whether you are a supplier, provider, customer, educator, or advocate, your role matters.

“There should never be a time we stop working toward digital inclusion,” Connected Nation’s Heather Gate told her team, who were among the 1,300 conference attendees in Philadelphia. As Executive Vice President of Digital Inclusion, Gate’s drive for a more accessible world keeps her hopeful for what is to come.

“Look at the people in this room,” she said. “These are people who know how important this is, and none of them are giving up.”