Another Net Inclusion is in the books, with this year’s conference held in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, aligning perfectly with it overlapping with Valentine’s Day. The event, hosted by NDIA, featured three days of learning with topics ranging from digital inclusion essentials to AI and dozens of panelists from across the country.  

Sessions throughout the conference had a strong focus on racial equity and equal access for people with disabilities as well as those whose first language is not English or who are justice involved. NDIA also stressed its continuing support of Tribal nations and communities, which was supported by FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel who said, “The first people on this land can’t be the last to be connected.”

Equitable access was also a theme of the remarks provided by new mayor of Philadelphia, Cherelle Parker. 

“Without digital inclusion—access to the internet, devices and digital literacy skills—you can’t provide economic opportunities,” Parker said, who has been working on bringing digital access to Pennsylvania since her work with in the state General Assembly expanding broadband throughout the state and collaborating with Comcast when they launched Internet Essentials, their low-cost internet plan, in 2011. 

She said she would be continuing that effort in her new role. “Everything has a foundation now in digital connectivity, and we want to make sure it is a priority,” Parker said.

Renewal of funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal program that provides a $30/month internet subsidy ($75 on Tribal lands), was also a hot topic over the course of the conference with repeated suggestions to contact elected officials to urge support of bipartisan legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that would allocate an additional $7 billion to the program. Without it, the program is projected to offer its last full subsidy in April, meaning the benefit will no longer be available to the low-income households currently enrolled in the program.

Chairwoman Rosenworcel emphasized the importance of the ACP during her keynote conversation with Siefer. “We’ve come too far. We have 23 million households that rely on it. We can’t go back.”

She also credited attendees with the success of the ACP, saying, “Local individuals who are trusted in the community really matter,” she said, a nod to the activities of organizations and institutions that had been working to get people signed up for the benefit, including those that had been a recipient of the ACP outreach grant.

While there was palpable excitement in anticipation of the historical Digital Equity Act money and Angela Siefer, NDIA’s executive director, strongly encouraged attendees to prepare for the funding now so they’re ready when it becomes available, she also stressed the need for a sustainability plan to ensure continuity after the five years of funding ends.

“We can’t build up amazing digital equity programs just to let them die when the federal funds run out,” Siefer said.

Partnerships and collaborations will be key to the sustainability strategy.

“Digital inclusion can’t stand alone,” she emphasized, pointing out there is an intersection with health, housing, education and other policy areas and that digital equity should be integrated into all types of philanthropic foundations. She also commented on the importance of connecting with the private sector to highlight its role as it “depends on these online services to increase profits and decrease costs.

Engaging with diverse stakeholders is critical to closing the digital divide, and Siefer stressed that “robust digital equity ecosystems evolve to meet community needs. Technology will keep changing, and equity will still be a problem,” she said. 

The conference, which started in Kansas City with 150 attendees just eight years ago, has now grown by nearly 10x with 1,300 attendees this year. NDIA has also exploded from a team of two working part time at its founding to 22 full-time staff serving 1,600 affiliates located in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands. 

Further Reading

Expanding Digital Literacy Programs in the Region: A Recap of February’s Digital Inclusion Learning Circle Meeting

The goal of the Digital Inclusion Learning Circle is to provide a space for digital skills trainers to share their knowledge and expertise, get tips to improve their programs and services and brainstorm new ideas. The February Digital Inclusion Learning Circle featured presentations from Pam Rooks, Refugee Digital Access Specialist with Catholic Charities of Northeast […]

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