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This holiday season, let’s sound the alarm on broadband access for all

While the pandemic drove some much-needed progress, 42 million Americans are still stuck in the Digital Divide

Red Clock

Louisville, Kentucky (December 9, 2021) – One of my favorite holiday memories involves an alarm clock. Not just any alarm clock — an ugly, grey metal clock that you had to wind to set. It made this awful, and sometimes frightening ding, ding, ding!! sound when it went off.

I loved that alarm clock, and with good reason. When I heard that terrible sound, I knew I would soon get to open another gift on Christmas Day.

My Aunt Sally came up with the idea. Before she introduced the alarm clock as part of our family tradition, we would gather at her house in Oklahoma City and circle the tree. My sister, Jennifer, and I would hand out gifts to everyone and then we — adults and children alike — would tear into them with the mad frenzy of kids on Christmas morning.

But within a few minutes, the house would be covered in torn wrapping paper, broken ribbons, and hastily read, tossed-aside cards — the excitement over as quickly as it began.

That is, until my aunt introduced that infamous family alarm clock. 

Aunt Sally felt we needed to take our time, and enjoy the day and each other. The gifts should be secondary rather than the center of everything. The idea was that we would each take a turn setting the alarm clock. No one else would know what we set it to — that was to be kept a secret. Each time it went off, we got to open a present.

As you can imagine, there was a wide range of times in between gifts. Hand the clock to my dad? We’d be opening a gift in 2 minutes, tops. Hand it to my aunt? It would be a few hours.

The thing was — something amazing happened in those moments in between presents. Not only did my Aunt Sally provide a new environment where we interacted more, she also created a little magic for us all. We played games, made cookies, and talked about our lives, so that when the alarm clock went off, it was something extra special. All of us would jump up and make our way to the tree, excited for the next gift in a way that was so much sweeter and more meaningful than ever before — simply because we had waited.

Connected Nation is celebrating 20 years of service in 2021, and as I was thinking back on what we’ve accomplished during this anniversary year, those childhood memories of my aunt’s alarm clock kept cropping up.

I think it’s because of the lessons I learned from those holidays my family spent together.  

Lesson 1: Your time matters more when it’s shared with others

Connected Nation works to provide innovative solutions for expanding access, adoption, and usage of high-speed internet (broadband) and its related technologies to all people. Simply put — everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

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Computers 4 People was awarded hotspots and free internet through the homework gap program run by Connected Nation in 2021. Computers 4 Provided the hotspots to clients of the York Street Project in Jersey City. Dylan Zajac, Computers 4 People’s Founder and Executive Director, is pictured third from the right.

For us, that means no one should miss out on the resources and opportunities broadband access can provide, no matter the circumstances they were born into, how much money they make, or where they live. Yes, Connected Nation is part of the world of tech, but what we do is really about the people we’re working to help and the partnerships we create to do so.

Over the past two decades, we have worked hard to help thousands more kids, families, senior citizens, veterans, and entire communities in both urban and rural settings. It can take months or years to see the results — but that time is well spent when a child is able to understand and complete his school assignments, or a senior citizen no longer feels isolated because he or she can connect with family members and friends.

Giving our time to this mission has been challenging, but also rewarding. One example of our hard work in 2021 is the partnership we developed with AT&T to provide hotspots and internet service for remote learning to nearly 40,000 vulnerable children. About 140 nonprofits and schools nationwide, including Project Rousseau in New York, benefited from this vital program.

“Lack of internet access was a critical problem right at the start of the pandemic,” said Andrew Heinrich, Founder and President, Project Rousseau. “The hotspots provided by the program have been essential for many of our students. In many cases, before [getting] the hotspots, some students only had an internet connection on their school bus.” 

Connected Nation’s staff has always placed a high value on partnering with others, and giving time and support to projects or programs that will mean connecting with and/or helping more people. Other examples of this in 2021 include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Our partnership with Empatico to provide content that will help parents and teachers protect children online.

  • Our Digital Works program, which is actively working to provide telework training and job placement assistance for military spouses and veterans — two populations with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

  • Our GeoAnalytics and Engineering & Technical Service teams, who are working to improve broadband coverage data so it more accurately reflects where the greatest need is.

  • The completion of the Alaska Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Report, which provides a path forward for the state.

  • Our statewide efforts in Texas and Michigan, both of which are working on local and state-led initiatives to identify solutions for expanding broadband access.

  • Our Connect K-12 program, which provides free internet speed and pricing information to state and school district leaders so they can negotiate better contracts for expanding classroom connectivity and supporting school networks.

  • Leveraging the Connected Nation podcast to share best practices, and support and highlight programs that are positively impacting the broadband space.

  • Our Vice President of Digital Inclusion, Heather Gate, was appointed Chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s rechartered Communications Equity and Diversity Council, after serving on its previous advisory committee since 2017.

  • Our CEO, Tom Ferree, also provides guidance to the FCC on ways to accelerate the deployment of broadband as a member of its Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

  • Our Vice President of GeoAnalytics, Ashley Hitt, was named the 2021 President-Elect for the URISA Board of Directors, an international organization. Her team works to provides data visualization solutions that help decisions makers better understand where the greatest need is for closing the Digital Divide.

  • The launch of the 2021 UETN School Technology Inventory, which tracks technology through Utah’s schools.

As to that final point, Connected Nation has helped UETN track tech in schools since 2015, which played a critical and unexpected role in 2020.

“As we embark on our fourth statewide inventory with Connected Nation, we are particularly mindful of how effective the first three inventories were in laying the foundation for UETN’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ray Timothy, CEO and Executive Director of UETN, during the launch of the 2021 inventory. “Because we had current data, we knew what the education communities needed and where we needed to fill the gaps. We were able to shift existing resources and seek additional necessary funding.”

Over the years, it’s sometimes been difficult to get lawmakers or local leaders to understand why connecting everyone is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The pandemic changed that.

Lesson 2: A gift is extra special when you’ve waited

In early 2020, it was estimated that 42 million Americans did not have access to high-speed internet. In addition, 43% of low-income families, 14.6% of rural residents, and 16.9 million shool-aged children were on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.

Ringing Clock

Unfortunately, it took the pandemic to shine a spotlight on just how critical it is that we finally close that digital equity gap. We all witnessed, or even experienced firsthand, the need for better connectivity across the country. It touches just about every aspect of our modern lives. It’s needed to support remote learning, telework, telehealth, community organizations, and so much more.

Even if the pandemic finally winds down, the need for connectivity will not go away. What happens if a child is sent home from school with a fever? Will he or she miss out on two weeks of schoolwork? What if a senior citizen is again told to stay home to protect themselves? Will that person be isolated and alone? What about a parent struggling to make ends meet? Will he or she be able to work from home to forego the high cost of childcare?

The good news for 2022 and beyond is that lawmakers now seem to understand what’s at stake and, this year, they took unprecedented action — providing the American people with a “gift” we’ve long been waiting for with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in early November.

“This bill provides an unprecedented $65 billion in funding to build robust broadband infrastructure and address the many digital equity issues that our country still faces,” said Tom Ferree, Chairman and CEO, Connected Nation, at the time the bill was passed. “Just as federal investment in the interstate highway system fostered economic development, better healthcare, improved education, and access to goods and services 65 years ago, Congress has now made a generational investment in broadband to do the same and more. We’re heartened by the way this bill tears down barriers to broadband access and adoption in ways that no previous legislation has.”

The bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Monday, November 15. Just two days later, Connected Nation hosted an historic event.  

Lesson 3: Take time to mark the important moments 

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Pictured: Some of the Washington, DC panelists and their moderator during Connected Nation's 20th anniversary event: A national conversation on the Digital Divide

On Wednesday, November 17, expert panelists gathered at three locations across the country to take part in a one-of-a-kind, never-before-done event titled, “20 years of connecting the nation: a national conversation on the Digital Divide.”

The event featured live, in-studio panel discussions from RFD-TV and the American Farm Bureau Federation’s studios in Washington, D.C.; Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas; and KGW-TV, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Oregon. Topics for the expert panelists ranged from “What 2020 means for the future of the Digital Divide” to “Infrastructure and emerging technology.”

“KGW is committed to innovation and journalism — and one part of that commitment includes public service,” said Steve Carter, president and general manager of KGW, in the weeks leading up to the event. “And much like our mission, this event is focused informing the public and providing a public service. Our hope is this day leads to continued conversations and action to change digital equity gaps across our nation.”

In addition to the panels, Connected Nation travelled to local schools, libraries, hospitals, and rural communities to talk with students, teachers, veterans, farmers, and so many others about why having access to high-speed internet is a necessary part of our American way of life. The result was a truly national, all-encompassing event.

It was not only historic in its approach — using multiple media outlets to create a live, in-person presence — but also touched on the very human side of this work — giving those directly impacted an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

For all of us at Connected Nation, it was a time to take stock of how far we’ve come over the past two decades, what we’ve done right or wrong, and to examine what still needs to be done.

Lesson 4: Together, we can create a little magic

As we leave 2021 behind and look ahead to 2022, the lesson I hope you take with you is that by working together, we can and will create positive change in people’s lives, and transform whole communities.

The infrastructure bill was bipartisan, unprecedented, and is a sign of what can be done when we put our differences aside and focus on what’s best for us all.

Let’s set our sights on expanding the access of broadband, removing barriers to its adoption, and teaching others how to use it so that no one is left out.

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The alarm has sounded.

Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

About the author: Jessica Denson is the Communications Director at Connected Nation. In that role, she is responsible for overall brand strategy, which includes building program recognition through digital communications, media relations, and marketing opportunities.