Combating the Digital Divide by Increasing Equitable Access to Broadband Services

January 15, 2022

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FUSE Corps

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed long-seated issues with connectivity in Travis County and now the county must tackle three interconnected crises: a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a digital inclusion crisis. To ensure that broadband is provided as an essential utility, like water or electricity, throughout the County post-pandemic, Travis County will partner with FUSE Corps for one year to support the launch of the County’s first Office of Broadband Development and Digital Equity.

This fellowship project begins on April 25, 2022, and ends on April 24, 2023. The fellowship begins with a multi-day virtual orientation the week of April 25, 2022. The selected Executive Fellow will begin their first day of providing services to the host agency on May 2, 2022.

PROJECT CONTEXT

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed long-seated issues with connectivity in Texas, with almost 900,000 residents lacking broadband internet access across the state. In Central Texas, over 37,000 students are without the high-speed internet needed for online learning, and over 50,000 residents in Austin alone do not have use of the internet. These digital deserts are primarily located in ZIP codes east of Interstate 35, where many families are low-income, food insecure, and children attend low-performing schools – following the same racial divides set by the segregation of Black and Hispanic residents nearly a hundred years ago.

This digital exclusion presents significant hurdles for these historically underserved communities. Internet access and digital fluency are becoming almost mandatory to access opportunities across education, social services, and local civic participation. And during the pandemic, the digital divide has prevented many of these residents from reaching telehealth options and booking appointments for life-saving vaccinations and has exacerbated the student achievement gaps for those who have limited online resources. Travis County now must tackle three interconnected crises: a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a digital inclusion crisis.

Nevertheless, within Travis County, cities and community groups have started to make strides to close the gaps faced by its most digitally excluded residents. The Austin Independent School District has partnered with wireless provider Kajeet to deploy over 100 WIFI-equipped buses to serve as hot spots for students in neighborhoods and apartments where home internet access is least likely. PODER, a grassroots social justice organization, has utilized a phone-tree and word-of-mouth system to register more than 1,600 residents for vaccine appointments, most of them Black and Hispanic. And local healthcare providers, Central Health and CommUnityCare, implemented mobile Covid-19 testing teams to reach those who typically do not have internet resources, such as residents experiencing homelessness. Travis County intends to build upon these Covid-19 response efforts and ensure that broadband is provided as an essential utility, like water or electricity, throughout the County post-pandemic.

Travis County will partner with FUSE Corps for one year to support the launch of the County’s first Office of Broadband Development and Digital Equity. A FUSE Executive Fellow will develop a comprehensive county-wide digital inclusion strategy that will be fulfilled by this new office, ensuring the delivery and adoption of broadband is sustainably funded for years to come. The Executive Fellow will play an essential role in delivering the internet into the hands of every Travis County resident, increasing educational and health outcomes for those low-income neighborhoods and communities of color most impacted by Covid-19.

PROJECT SUMMARY & POTENTIAL DELIVERABLES

The following provides a general overview of the proposed Executive Fellowship project. This summary and the potential deliverables will be collaboratively revisited by the host agency, the Executive Fellow, and FUSE staff during the first few months of the Executive Fellowship, after which a revised scope of work will be developed and agreed upon by the FUSE Executive Fellow and the host agency.

Starting April 2022, it is proposed the FUSE Executive Fellow will engage with key stakeholders, including staff across County Departments, the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network, the Capital Area Council of Governments, public school district leadership, private telecommunications and technology companies, digital inclusion content experts, and community members, to conduct an in-depth landscape analysis. The Executive Fellow will gather data around broadband coverage, connectivity, speeds, and pricing, mapping Travis County’s physical broadband infrastructure. During the analysis, the Executive Fellow will also inventory existing digital inclusion programs and policies implemented throughout the county and conduct a Digital Equity Survey, considering residents’ access to broadband resources and barriers to technology or WIFI access. The Executive Fellow will further research national best practices and models of other cities and counties that have set up offices related to broadband and digital equity, assessing applicability locally.

The Executive Fellow will spend a significant amount of time understanding the federal, local, and private financial resources available for supporting connectivity – paying close attention to competitive federal grants. This will include cultivating relationships with leaders and philanthropists in the local telecom and technology community (Dell, Tesla, Google, Oracle, Facebook, etc.), exploring public-private partnership programs that would extend infrastructure to underserved neighborhoods and enable residents to access discounted broadband, bill assistance funds, or free/discounted devices.

In the next phase, the Executive Fellow will work with community members, local technology partners, as well as internal stakeholders to develop a digital inclusion strategic plan to ensure residents across the county have equitable access to the internet. The Executive Fellow will build consensus among stakeholders around a unified vision, establish priority areas, and present recommendations for new programs, policies, resources, and partnerships. The plan will outline the build-out of the Office of Broadband Development and Digital Equity, short and long-term goals of the office, and timelines for the integration of the recommendations. The recommendations should primarily focus on connecting more residents to free, low-cost, or discounted technology and broadband services, increasing overall enrollment of eligible customers in assistance funds or programs, and recruiting new participants in digital literacy programs or partnerships.

The Executive Fellow will then be charged with setting up a comprehensive and holistic implementation framework for this strategy. The framework will establish clear roles for internal and external stakeholders, articulate roll-out timelines, milestones, and metrics for tracking progress that capture improvements in accessibility, affordability, and connection to broadband. The Executive Fellow will initiate activities and policies that are most urgent and or are considered low-hanging fruit. This will include developing the organizational structure of the Office of Broadband Development and Digital Equity, building the capacity of the division. The Executive Fellow will also develop a sustainable funding model to deliver the digital inclusion strategy. Overall, the launch of this new office will serve as a national model for enabling residents to gain digital access and reach critical services – services essential to improving their educational, health, and economic outcomes.

By April 2023, the Executive Fellow will have overseen the following:

  • Analyze and assess the landscape – an in-depth landscape analysis of broadband coverage, connectivity, speeds, pricing, and physical infrastructure in Travis County; identify and map all the players in the space, collate all relevant digital inclusion efforts, programs, and policies (public, community-based, and private); develop and conduct a Digital Equity Survey – the survey should be inclusive of lower-income residents and those residents in cities or school districts without any digital inclusion efforts to date
  • Research innovative policies, programs, tools, and best practices – Extensively research national best practices and highly successful and cutting-edge models and approaches to setting up a 501c3/office of broadband, identify solutions that could potentially be used by Travis County, assessing applicability locally; develop prospectus of varying funding streams for digital inclusion programs
  • Cultivate private sector relationships and surface new partnership opportunities – Build strong working relationships with leaders and philanthropists in the local telecom and technology community, gain a comprehensive understanding of their offerings for discounted internet, bill assistance funds, or free/discounted devices; explore new partnerships for expanding physical broadband infrastructure and services to underserved and low-income residents
  • Develop a comprehensive strategic plan for digital inclusion – Identify and clarify a shared vision for closing the digital divide in Travis County, outlining the development of a new 501c3 Office of Broadband and Digital Equity, short and long-term goals and priority areas; recommend which current policies and programs should be scaled, tweaked, or resolved; and design comprehensive tools and public-private systems that support physical infrastructure expansion and the digital literally of residents
  • Engage stakeholders and catalyze buy-in – Demonstrate cross-cultural agility and successfully engage with all relevant stakeholders, facilitate communication, information exchange, and cross-functional work; solicit feedback from major stakeholders on the strategic plan; identify barriers to implementing any recommendations; incorporate input from stakeholders to build consensus and ensure that the strategy is supported and successful
  • Design and support framework for short and long-term implementation – Shepherd the launch of the new Office of Broadband Development and Digital Equity, train staff and build local capacity; develop a sustainable funding model for the office, preparing the office to bid on competitive federal grants, determining how to best distribute already available funding, and designing a business case for philanthropic investment overtime; partner with community-based organizations, school systems, and other trusted social service providers to scale prioritized initiatives, increase enrollment in digital literacy programs, and support capacity building for the disbursement of digital infrastructure (hotspots, and computers etc.); work with stakeholders and the leadership of the new office to implement and manage the strategy; ensure the appropriate interim and long-term metrics are in place to monitor progress

KEY STAKEHOLDERS

  • Executive Sponsor – Paul Hopingardner, County Executive for Technology and Operations, Information Technology Services Department
  • Project Supervisor – Randy Lott, Chief Administrative Officer – Technology and Operations, Information Technology Services Department

QUALIFICATIONS

  • At least 15 years of professional experience in a relevant field, particularly with a strong background in strategic planning and project management
  • Experience in a start-up environment or having been an entrepreneur themselves in the technology space – fostering an idea through implementation
  • Robust success in cultivating partnerships, relationship and coalition building, and fostering collaborative environments
  • Excellent stakeholder engagement skills and the ability to use facilitative leadership techniques to coordinate stakeholder activities
  • Resiliency, persistent in obtaining information, and creatively resourceful in identifying solutions to complex problems
  • Experience working in politically charged or bureaucratic environments, prowess in managing delicate situations or stakeholders with patience
  • Cross-cultural agility, relating to a wide variety of diverse audiences with strong emotional intelligence and empathy
  • Ability to sustain progress within potentially ambiguous environments
  • Superior critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Ability to synthesize complex information into clear and concise recommendations
  • A self-motivated, goal-oriented, entrepreneurial leader who can also be an independent worker
  • Exceptional written and verbal communication skills with ease in public presentations
  • Understands the need for solutions to support all people in a community regardless of race, religion, gender, immigration status, or ethnicity
FUSE Corps is an equal opportunity employer with a core value of incorporating diverse perspectives into our work at every level. We encourage candidates from all backgrounds to apply for this position.
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