Bridging the Digital Divide: A WNC Digital Inclusion Plan

Land of Sky Regional Council (NC)

Even as broadband technology became more and more central to the modern economy over the last few decades, rural areas in the United States traditionally lagged behind in infrastructure deployment and access. Over the last few years, however, federal investments have brought broadband access to more and more places, connecting people to the digital economy and helping rural communities retain and attract workers, firms, and investment. Economic Development Districts have played an important role in broadband deployment across the country by convening partners and developing plans that have directed investment to places that had once feared being left behind. 

Many EDDs have begun to expand their role in the broadband space beyond infrastructure deployment towards ensuring that newly-served areas are able to access and utilize this infrastructure to meet pressing community needs. In Western North Carolina, the Land of Sky Regional Council (LOS) recently undertook a program, Bridging the Digital Divide: A WNC Digital Inclusion Plan, that broadened its involvement in the broadband sector to promote digital inclusion and help individuals overcome barriers to connecting to new infrastructure.  Staff at LOS began the formal planning process with a large regional forum in 2019 that convened stakeholders and community partners to discuss access issues in the region. Numerous follow-up meetings helped staff hone their approach before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sense of urgency and pushed them to quickly roll out project components. “When the pandemic hit, appetite for planning really fell off,” says Regional Planner Sara Nichols. “It really became a moment for doing. The energy and support for doing something was incredible.”

Interest from community partners exploded as the world went remote and digital connectivity became central to how businesses, schools, and communities stayed together. Everyone recognized how important it was to make sure that the moment was as inclusive as possible, and that meant rolling out programs to provide access and education for all in need.  Schools were an initial focus area, as educators rushed to get devices and connections in the hands of underserved students so that they could learn remotely. Planners and local partners rolled out device lending pilots, put free Wi-Fi in community centers, created public hotspots in downtowns, and more. All these rollouts were little bets—a few devices at a time, scattered across programs—but the impact quickly added up. To date, the program has deployed more than $2 million in grant funding with the help of partners across the region, and it has seen so much success that LOS is now working with four neighboring councils of governments (COGs) to create their own broadband inclusion plans. The program was also recently featured as a model for COGs at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance Conference

Staff with LOS, who led the planning, grant writing, and project administration process, credit strong community engagement for the success of this effort.  Outreach to community groups was tailored to acknowledge the work those organizations had been doing already. “When you start digging into who is doing work in your community, they may not call it digital inclusion, but they’re doing things like device lending and education,” says Nichols. “It’s important to not come in and say, ‘I’m here to bridge the digital divide,’ because your partners have been doing this work already.” Respect for existing work, a flexible understanding of inclusion projects, and a focus on small, fast bets that met the urgency of the moment all contributed to the project’s success.

This case study was written by Dion Thompson-Davoli, NADO RF Research Fellow


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