The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how digital deserts throughout Birmingham prevented many residents from reaching telehealth options, students from completing the school year, others from joining the workforce after layoffs, and some from accessing critical city and social services. To combat this digital divide, FUSE will partner with Birmingham to launch a comprehensive strategy for city-wide broadband expansion and digital inclusion.
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.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that broadband, like water or power, is a critical utility. Residents rely on internet access for everything from virtual learning to telehealth services. Unfortunately, only 86% of Alabamians have high-speed internet available, and only 44% of residents have access to an affordable internet plan. In Alabama’s Black Belt, the digital divide is even worse, compounding issues related to racial discrimination, high poverty, and limited access to healthcare services. Nine counties in the Black Belt have less than 30% access to broadband, and even in Black Belt cities with established broadband infrastructure, like Birmingham, many residents face cost barriers. Both availability and affordability contribute to significant digital deserts in Alabama’s Black Belt.
This digital exclusion presents significant hurdles for these historically underserved communities. Internet access and digital fluency are becoming almost mandatory to reach education and economic opportunities. And during the pandemic, the digital divide has prevented many of these residents from reaching telehealth options, students from completing the school year, others from joining the workforce after layoffs, and some from accessing critical city and social services.
With this in mind, the City of Birmingham is committed to expanding broadband infrastructure and ensuring all Birmingham residents, households, communities, organizations, and businesses have access to appropriate devices, internet connections, technical support, and digital resources. In 2020 alone, Birmingham committed nearly $500,000 to build WIFI infrastructure in its public housing communities and committed another $150,000 to buy 500 computers. Despite this progress, the city does not have a coordinated strategy for tackling digital exclusion or establishing digital equity for residents in the short or long term.
To combat the digital divide, the City of Birmingham will partner with FUSE Corps to host an Executive Fellow for one year to launch a comprehensive strategy for city-wide broadband expansion and digital inclusion. The Executive Fellow will utilize publicly available data and creatively crowdsource additional information to track Birmingham’s current broadband coverage, connectivity, and pricing, ultimately mapping Birmingham’s physical broadband infrastructure and determine barriers to resident access. Utilizing this data, the Executive Fellow will co-design solutions with the community and employ public-private partnerships and federal, state, and local resources to craft and initiate multiple pilot programs. The Executive Fellow will ensure digital equity is a driver of community cohesion and improves the learning, employment, and wellbeing of those most impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
PROJECT SUMMARY & POTENTIAL DELIVERABLES
The following provides a general overview of the proposed 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 fellowship, after which a revised scope of work will be developed and agreed upon by the FUSE fellow and the host agency.
Starting April 2022, it is proposed that the FUSE Executive Fellow will engage with a wide range of critical stakeholders, including staff across city departments, private telecommunications companies, and utility providers, such as Alabama Power; the State of Alabama’s Office of Broadband Development, local colleges and universities, community-based organizations; and community members, to conduct an in-depth landscape analysis. The Executive Fellow will utilize these connections and creative crowdsourcing campaigns to gather data around broadband coverage, connectivity, and pricing, ultimately mapping Birmingham’s physical broadband infrastructure. During this analysis, the Executive Fellow will also inventory existing broadband expansion projects or digital inclusion programs and conduct a Digital Equity and Needs Survey, considering residents’ access to broadband resources and barriers to technology or WIFI access. The Executive Fellow will research national best practices and models of other cities, such as Detroit, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, that have achieved results in closing the digital divide, assessing applicability locally.
The Executive Fellow will synthesize and assess this data and research to produce the city’s first-ever roadmap for expanding broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion. The Executive Fellow will collaborate with stakeholders to determine short and long-term goals, establish priority areas, and present recommendations around programs, policies, resources, and partnerships that address the most critical gaps and needs. These recommendations should be co-designed with the community (wherever possible), focus on creative infrastructure techniques, such as the use of mesh WIFI networks or the utilization of community venues (e.g., churches, colleges) for hotspots; and highlight how to best utilize any financial resources available for expanding connectivity to residents – paying close attention to Covid-19 relief and recovery grant funding programs. The roadmap will outline timelines for implementing these recommendations over the next one to five years, including one to two pilots for immediate implementation.
In the last six months of the fellowship, the Executive Fellow will primarily be tasked with initiating at least one community-centered pilot programs that might be easily expanded throughout the city after the pilot. By April 2023, the Executive Fellow will have overseen the following:
- Analyze and assess the current landscape – Conduct an in-depth landscape analysis of broadband coverage, connectivity, pricing, and physical infrastructure in Birmingham – creatively sourcing data through community partnerships and crowdsourcing; 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 and Needs Survey, determining barriers to accessibility, mapping gaps, and identify cross-cutting themes
- Research innovative policies, programs, tools, and best practices – Extensively research national best practices and highly successful, cutting-edge, and creative models and approaches to expanding connectivity and broadband infrastructure – with particular focus on the limits of state preemption; identify solutions that could potentially be used by the city, assessing applicability locally
- Cultivate community, faith-based, and private partnerships – Demonstrate cross-cultural agility and successfully engage with all relevant stakeholders, facilitate communication, information exchange, and cross-functional work; build strong working relationships with local leaders, spearhead the development of data sharing agreements, where applicable; gain a comprehensive understanding of telecoms, utility partners, and educational institutions offerings and desires for expanding broadband infrastructure, discounted internet or bill assistance funds, or free/discounted devices to residents; co-design solutions with the community, focusing on addressing ‘last mile’ connection gaps; strengthen existing lines of communication between stakeholders
- Form recommendations, engage stakeholders, and catalyze buy-in – Develop a 5-year roadmap for expanding broadband infrastructure and digital inclusion in Birmingham; identify and clarify a shared vision for success, outline short and long-term goals and priority areas; build-out recommendations that address any needs or gaps identified, identify barriers to implementing any recommendations, solicit and incorporate input from major stakeholders to build consensus around the plan and ensure that it is supported and successful
- Roll-out recommendations, support pilot initiative, ensure adequate resources – Oversee implementation of strategies considered low-hanging fruit, including designing and launching at least one pilot project; determine staffing and resource needs, including recommendations for how to utilize current American Rescue Plan Act funds and ongoing infrastructure funds to support the roadmap; develop a prospectus of federal, state, and private funding streams for broadband expansion – both in terms of physical infrastructure and digital inclusion and literacy programs
- Executive Sponsor – Ed Fields, Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist, Mayor’s Office
- Project Supervisor – Amelia Muller, Civic Design Principal, Mayor’s Office
- Katricia Flowers, Executive Administrator, Mayor’s Office
- Approximately 15 years of professional experience in a relevant field, background in urban planning and design or technology implementation
- Work experience implementing physical programs or projects highly preferred
- Strong project management skills
- Proven success in cultivating partnerships, relationship and coalition building, and fostering collaborative environments
- Some community organizing or community engagement experience essential
- Cross-cultural agility, relating to a wide variety of diverse audiences with strong emotional intelligence and empathy
- Ability to analyze and interpret quantitative and qualitative date; experience with spatial data is a plus but not required
- Creative thinker and problem solver, having previously utilized human-center design principals
- Persistence, ability to sustain progress within potentially ambiguous environments
- Capacity to identify best practices, understand data and evidence and use it to support a business case, and make a persuasive argument to support recommendations
- Exceptional written and verbal communication skills
- Proven ability to create and deliver powerful presentations with ease in public speaking
- Superior critical thinking and analytical skills
- Self-motivated and goal-oriented leader who can also be an independent worker
- Ability to synthesize complex information into clear and concise recommendations
- Experience working in politically sensitive or bureaucratic environments
- Understands the need for solutions to support all people in a community regardless of race, religion, gender, immigration status, or ethnicity