An amazing event occurred on March 4th, thanks to Zoom technology providing ease of a gathering, which would have been extremely difficult to pull off in person. The forty-five attendees representing state, county and local governing bodies, schools, Internet service providers, funders, non-profits and community members were all on one screen ready to talk about how to “bridge the digital divide” in Southern Chester County.
The Digital Equity Advocacy Group---Volunteers, Jim Mercante, Joan Holliday and Kennett Township Supervisor, Whitney Hoffman led the charge.With virtual schooling and businesses running from home this year, they made the strong case that having robust Internet services for all residents is not an “extra” or luxury any more, but an essential need.
School District Technology staff, who have been addressing all of the “pot holes” in this patchwork Internet system have become the experts in identifying where Internet access and bandwidth are missing in the many municipalities. The school designated staff who did trouble shooting with individual homes have even been found standing outside a family’s home waiting for Internet Service Providers to install the final cable so connectivity could be set-up in the home.
Dan Maguire, Kennett School District Technology Head, shared that the Government Cares Act has helped the immediate problem by funding over 550 Wi-Fi Hotspots for the Kennett School District. Internet Service Providers have also helped lower the cost of Internet service during this past year. This is all helpful in the short term, but this is not a sustainable solution. Besides, the Hotspots many times did not work for more than one person and the signal to the home was weak or absent, even with the assists.
The world has turned a corner around technology with the pandemic. From now on, there will be more hybrid models around education, more demand to use the Internet to fill-out applications for health and social services, while businesses will have employees working from home.
The Digital Equity Advocacy Group is looking for short and long-term strategies and solutions. They have sought out other rural communities and cities around the country to learn how they are handling this emerging and imminent need. Many dialogues by Zoom have taken place.
With this, the Advocacy Group learned some of the key success factors and presented them to the group on March 4.
The community advocacy volunteers believe that with engaging representatives from the whole system, making up the digital divide, success can happen!The following are critical success factors that were presented at the meeting: 1)advocate for a county agency to be project manager.2) develop a coalition of key stakeholders; 3) conduct an advocacy campaign; 4) secure funding 5) address all three areas---Internet accessibility; connectivity; and digital literacy6) Conduct an assessment, develop a plan and implement.
Many conversations are now occurring to best position the effort. Funding is being identified for a key agency to take on the project management role. Assessment of the Internet services in Southern Chester County will be the first phase. The volunteer Advocacy Group will continue to educate about the need for this dramatic shift in services.
This is just a beginning, because in the implementation phase, digital literacy will also be a major effort. Families who are not familiar with using computers and the Internet will need support and training by trusted community-based organizations. There is a desire to learn and advance in technology literacy, which has been proven this year by the parents, who are engaging virtual schooling with their children.
The beat goes on. The momentum is building and there is much hope, that through patience, perseverance and collaboration, our Southern Chester County community will actually “bridge the digital divide.”