Working Collaboratively towards Digital Inclusion

The pandemic peeled blinders from our eyes exposing ways people are excluded from digital opportunities like learning, employment, telehealth.  These are linked to digital access including internet access, devices, apps, know-why, know-how.   
 
Fresno Unified School District, an urban district with 72,00+ students, began in 2016 a personalized, blended learning program.  This brought student laptops and Wi-Fi into classrooms.  Yet, learning beyond school was limited without digital access so we issued hotspots.  The pandemic closed schools, so we pivoted to 1x1 laptops and online learning.  We learned that the quality of the internet varied across neighborhoods with egregiously fewer cell towers and lower broadband adoption in higher poverty areas.  Hotspots did not work well for those most in need and broadband was not affordable, available, or performant.
 
During the past two years, I was involved in conversations with groups like SHLB, CoSN; community anchor institutions (CAI); community-based organizations (CBO); and private firms to understand hindrances to digital access and collaborate on ways to solve for internet access.  The regional conversations, led by the California Public Utilities Commission, showed that 1) the regulatory environment and carrier/provider business models did not bring internet access to areas of high poverty, 2) anchor institutions must collaborate to solve for internet for these neighborhoods, and 3) field-validated maps and statewide advocacy are necessary to ensure affordable adequate services.  We asked the provider who is delivering leased fiber to the district if they might choose to run their fiber past Fresno Housing Authority low-income housing complexes.  They agreed and will make affordable internet possible at these housing complexes – now to secure funding :).  These conversations expanded into more formal collaboratives like “Fresno County Equitable Broadband” coalition, including CAIs and CBOs.   Our focus includes 1) the household-level with internet access, devices, literacy; and 2) the systems-level with middle mile, last mile, data/mapping, advocacy, and coordination of assets/services.  Digital inclusion should include layers of access: home broadband, mobile internet, bus Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi at community centers and schools. 
 
There is much to be done and some work requires planning.  Yet expediency is required given current funding, known opportunities, and the impact of continued digital exclusion.  Fresno Unified demonstrates its commitment to digital inclusion with Cradlepoint Wi-Fi on bus fleet, expanded Wi-Fi access in common areas at high schools, and dark leased fiber to 70% of schools by 2022 with the remainder by 2023.  We have deployed a private LTE network on 15 campus-buildings-as-towers that can serve up to 10,000 students, and we may invest to double the scope of this network.  We’ve used every grant possible including E-Rate, CARES, EBB, ECF… We’re coordinating supports for students/families with CBOs.  And we’ve built the myQoI Windows app to track the quality of the internet on district-issued 1x1 laptops.  Another data signal within our learning analytics platform to ensure equitable learning. 
These conversations have common themes like 1) business-as-usual is what led to digital exclusion, and 2) fuller digital inclusion requires deep collaborations and persistent, pragmatic, innovative action.  Let’s do this CoSN!