Accelerating digital access for marginalized communities has been one of the few positive outcomes from the tragic COVID-19 pandemic. Smart city enthusiasts understand all too well that access to the Internet and digital services is critical to thrive in the modern era.
Even though Internet and connected device usage has increased amongst historically less-connected residents according to the recently-released NTIA Internet Use Survey, there is still substantial work to be done to decrease the digital divide. Increasing access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet, connected devices and digital skills building is still a major concern for cities large and small.
A unique collaboration in Texas called “Connected Dallas” shows signs of proving a new model for increasing access to technology. The Digital Ambassador program, announced in August 2022, provides a central hub for connection to all internet-based services including accessing Internet plans, low-cost devices and fundamental skills, as well as support for health, transportation, education, employment, housing and day-to-day services such as paying bills or online grocery shopping, and more.
The model relies on collaboration between a local champion and a private sector technology partner who work together to leverage a network of trained “Ambassadors.” These individuals will receive access to current, standardized information that can be customized and delivered through a multi-faceted approach including phone, text, online, community anchor/walk-in locations. Ambassadors are known and trusted champions in their communities and so are able to provide hyper-local support. Through a central, ‘single version of the truth’, information will be current and consistent across all support channels, providing a full spectrum of touchpoints for community members.
This digital equity initiative is led by the Dallas Innovation Alliance, a coalition of stakeholders from the City of Dallas, corporations, civic and other organizations, academia and private individuals who are invested in Dallas’ continued evolution as a forward‐thinking, innovative, ‘smart’ global city. AT&T is supporting the initiative with a $1 million grant as part of their $2 billion nationwide commitment to help bridge the digital divide.
The program has support from the highest level of local elected leadership. Mayor Eric Johnson states, “As we build for our future in Dallas, it is important for us to work together to bridge the digital divide in our historically underserved and overlooked communities. The Digital Ambassador program provides a significant boost to our efforts. Through this program, we can help support our city’s families by giving them access to the educational opportunities, training, and other support they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.”
This innovative, community-focused approach may hold new hope for the urgent need to invite greater access to digital communication. Progress on this front is important not just for the most vulnerable residents and citizens, but for the overall city as well. Strategic plans from the public sector to strengthen and expand key infrastructure, access and education are well-suited approaches for inbound Federal funding, and efforts like Digital Ambassadors provide key support to bolster education and adoption.
“Dallas cannot fulfill its potential as a city of innovation if we have communities left out of the technology revolution,” said Jennifer Sanders, Co-Founder and Executive Director, DIA. “Our Digital Ambassador program is a direct response to the needs of our communities and will help us provide support on-the-ground and via phone, text and web, for more than 10,000 members who are at risk of falling behind in an increasingly digital world.”
The combination of innovative programs at the local level combined with private sector support may serve to bolster funds emanating from the federal level including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Digital Equity Act and $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Planning and Capacity Grant Programs. Hopefully this program will be the first of many efforts to increase access to digital services, tools and training for all community members.
Findings from the NTIA Internet Use Survey
- 80 percent of Americans ages 3 and older used the Internet in some fashion in 2021, which represents a modest increase from 79 percent in 2019.
- 69 percent of Americans lived in a household with both fixed and mobile Internet services, compared with 67 percent in 2019 and 65 percent in 2017.
- Americans living in mobile-only households and in households with no Internet service subscriptions at all dropped. In 2017, 34 percent of people in households with family incomes under $25,000 per year had no Internet service subscriptions at all, and 15 percent only had mobile data plans, while by 2021 those numbers had changed to 26 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
- Thirty-two percent of children between the ages of 3 and 14 used a laptop in 2021, compared with just 27 percent in 2019, and laptop use among those ages 15 to 24 grew from 56 to 60 percent during this period.