"Over 50% of Florida children in poverty live in 15% of Florida zip codes. Access to the internet is the number one correlation with childhood policy."
Kyle Baltuch from the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation shared these statistics at the 2023 Florida Broadband Summit to highlight the necessity of digital access. The room was filled with Florida policymakers, nonprofit leaders who work in digital access spaces, and broadband providers–all of the people who could help truly get digital access to everyone in Florida.
Throughout the conference, I noticed several themes: the importance of contextualizing mapping, the necessity of intertwining cybersecurity training into digital access initiatives, a broader understanding of digital access as it applies to the entire workforce, and the importance of community collaboration in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) rollout.
The importance of contextualizing mapping:
Just because you are looking at a broadband service map, like The Florida Gap Map, does not mean you are getting the full picture of digital access in an area. A county or ZIP code marked as "served" does not necessarily mean that every person or family is being served or served at the same level. It can vary at the individual household level. Several of the panelists at the summit reminded the audience that if we rely solely on the data, we miss a large part of the picture. Data must be coupled with community listening.
The necessity of intertwining cybersecurity training into digital access initiatives:
Cybersecurity is a critical element of digital access. Cybersecurity training may seem "high tech" or difficult to implement, but it can be as basic as helping people use the internet safely. As new people are provided with internet access, they must also learn how to use it effectively. It is especially essential for young people. Instead of adding it on as a stage two to broadband rollout, it is much more beneficial to couple it with broadband rollout.
Broader understanding of digital access as it applies to the entire workforce:
Digital access and digital skills are present and necessary in almost all jobs. This is one reason why digital access is so vital in workforce development. The panelists reminded the audience that it is essential to remember this role.
The importance of community collaboration in BEAD rollout:
Finally, but definitely not of least importance—a huge focus of the conference was on the community-level buy-in essential in the BEAD rollout. BEAD stands for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment. The BEAD Program provides federal funding for grants to states for broadband planning, deployment, mapping, equity, and adoption activities. Karen Stewart wrote an entire TPF blog explaining this and other broadband federal funding. Some of the takeaways from the conference about BEAD adoption are:
- Make sure to ask the questions: "Who in our community is best equipped to deliver the message about BEAD adoption?" and "How are we building trust around BEAD adoption?"
- We can't use the internet to tell people about the internet. Other channels, like community voices and the radio, can play a large role.
- Consider who may be left out of the conversation if not put into the plan. Panelists shared how policymakers and community voices can help ensure non-English-speaking and very rural populations are included in the BEAD rollout.
- The challenge period for BEAD is coming up.
This conference aligned perfectly in timing with October's Digital Inclusion Month. Suncoast Digital Inclusion Month activities include:
- ACP engager events.
- Digital Navigator agency enrollment events, digital skills classes, and collaborations to support state planning for digital inclusion and equity.
- Collaborating with the Digital Navigator Program agencies, The GAP, A2A, ACP engagers, a STUG device donation drive, and others in a series of digital inclusion events are being implemented to raise awareness of the digital divide and help increase internet, devices, and digital skills adoption in the four-county area of Charlotte, Desoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.