Digital Access and Inclusion: Raising the Bar in Palm Beach County

Digital Access and Inclusion: Raising the Bar in Palm Beach County

Posted on May 11, 2022 by Michael Zimmerman, TPF Fellow 2021/22
A couple of years ago, a group of visionary leaders in Palm Beach County, Florida, came together to find their shared aspirations and forge a collaborative path forward in confronting the challenges of Digital Access and Inclusion in their region. They recognized the overwhelming need for access and connectivity to high-speed internet in the county and began to ponder what was possible. As there is great power in a strategic partnership, a collaboration was formed to address the challenge of building infrastructure to connect residents of the county who lacked connectivity to high-speed internet.

The Digital Inclusion Initiative is an undertaking that is both ambitious and quite remarkable. At the national level, it's rare to find such large collaborations spanning all sectors (for-profit, nonprofit, and government) addressing Digital Access and Inclusion needs on a unified front. The challenge typically lies in getting buy-in from the many organizations, agencies, and funders to embark on such a sizeable philanthropic endeavor. Upon discovering this unique and rare partnership in Palm Beach County, my interest was piqued, and I grew eager to learn more.

Welcoming my curiosity was Randy Scheid, Chief Strategy Officer with The Quantum Foundation, who I met at The Florida Philanthropic Network's (FPN) Conference. On the heels of my enthusiasm, Randy organized a special convening of leaders and partners participating in the Digital Inclusion Initiative, allowing me an opportunity to discuss the collaboration and glean more from this tremendous project.

With great excitement, I drove across the mainland of Florida from Sarasota to West Palm Beach to attend the convening hosted at The Quantum Foundation's offices. When I arrived, I was joined by leadership spanning the county collaboration, including Jamie-Lee Bradshaw and Nick Savage with Community Partners of South Florida, Judith Fletcher with The Fred DeLuca Foundation, James Gavrilos with The Education Foundation of Palm Beach County and Camden Baggs and Randy Scheid with The Quantum Foundation.

In launching the initiative, leadership needed to determine how to measure connectivity needs in the county. More specifically, there needed to be a consensus on what metrics would be used to identify the populations in need to strategically map out the infrastructure's installation. The families of students receiving free lunch in school emerged as a lucrative metric for focusing on the design and mapping of the project.

Currently, three of the 38 communities prioritized have been connected to high-speed internet as a result of this collaboration. The project was scheduled to be completed by April of 2021, but challenges arose along the way, primarily the setbacks of the pandemic and supply chain shortages. Florida's environmental factors, from weather to wildlife, created challenges in building the infrastructure for the communities. Regardless, the project is charging forward to connect the remaining areas needing high-speed internet.

Leadership from the project shared actions they may have taken in hindsight, including hosting additional city council meetings to gather more perspectives from community members. They also mentioned an interest in expanding outreach to host community conversations across the county to engage community members in discussions around the project and how it will help the surrounding communities. This would organically generate more buy-in. Lastly, they shared that engaging more of the for-profit sector in the project would have been beneficial. Despite the challenges, the project is making great strides, continuing to connect communities in need. And while the project timeline was delayed, partners in the collaboration reconvened to create new goals for project milestones and its final completion date. The willingness of all entities in the partnership to evolve and shift as challenges arose speaks volumes of the commitment each made to the Digital Inclusion Initiative.

I came away quite impressed with what I learned. The opportunity to participate in a knowledge-sharing session with the leadership of this initiative was quite extraordinary. I was particularly blown away by the transparency of all parties involved in how they shared all aspects of and updates on the work, both good and bad, while upholding honesty as the overarching tenet of their partnership.

The Patterson Foundation's (TPF) Digital Access For All Initiative also upholds a focus on connectivity as one of the three essential elements (devices and skills training being the other two) of Digital Access. Learning about what other communities are doing in the Digital Access and Inclusion space is important to TPF's approach of connecting, learning, sharing, evolving, and strengthening both TPF and the people, organizations, and communities it supports. Ambitious endeavors like that of Palm Beach County are worth sharing with the greater Digital Access space as it can inspire new and innovative ways of connecting communities as our world moves further into a Digital Age.

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