Thinking differently about how advanced technologies can be leveraged by cities and regions is critical to the future success of communities says Dennis Newman, the Program Director for North Carolina Next Generation Network, or NCNGN.

All hands on deck at NCNGN event

“What does high-speed network access allow us to achieve for disadvantaged communities that typically do not have access or training?” asks Newman.

According to the FCC, nearly 30% of census tracts lack a residential internet service provider that can provide a high-speed broadband connection, measured at or above 25 Mb/second. And another 48% of tracts have only one registered service provider, meaning there’s no competition. That’s just to access the internet—there are also affordability concerns and a variety of issues relating to sufficient access to internet-connected devices.

Yet cities and regions can and must play a role in enhancing digital equity, says Newman. Newman’s organization, which includes six municipalities, four universities, and one university hospital system, focuses on stimulating the deployment of next generation broadband networks across North Carolina through collaboration and coordination. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that every resident, no matter where they live or their life circumstances, has access and training to harness the power of the internet—equitably.

Bridging the divide

To achieve that vision, NC NGN launched a new phase of their work in November 2017, inviting stakeholders from all NCNGN partner organizations to participate in a design-thinking workshop in partnership with the City of Durham and US IGNITE.

Participants—which included Wanda Page, deputy city manager for the City of Durham, Scott Clark, CIO of the Town of Chapel Hill, Ronald Wahlen, director of digital learning for Durham Public Schools, and Leah Krause, CIO of North Carolina Central University—were asked to design three unique applications that could serve those that are traditionally digitally disadvantaged, thus helping the City of Durham utilize the advanced technologies that are available today.

“Many of us have been involved in programs over the years to try to provide some solutions to help the digitally disadvantaged, to bridge the divide, and those programs typically result in serving small populations due to limited resources,” said Newman.

Each of these programs tended to have two challenges, said Newman. First was the question of broadband access—do all residents have equitable access to the Internet? Second was a question of skilled training—do all residents have the technology skills and knowledge to use broadband access? Too often, programs are forced to limit their scope to serve small, statistically insignificant populations. Yes, there are many individual success stories—families that gained broadband access that made it easier to apply for a much-needed job or allowed their children to complete homework assignments—and each success story is validation that access to broadband internet is assumed, putting families and students at risk. What are communities to do?

“We asked a question that assumed that neither of these problems existed—if access was not an issue, and if technology training was not an issue, what could we do differently to take the benefits in our communities into other disadvantaged populations?” says Newman.

Tackling challenges

Three challenges—education, health services, and employment—were tackled by workshop participants. Each group defined the core problem, developed a potential solution, planned an audience test, and discussed how to test their solution with an actual product. Participants took their first steps in putting their thinking into action—to improve broadband access and training across North Carolina. A succinct summary was published in late 2017 and is available online.

“We did this with a focus on Durham and developing solutions that would be a good fit for the City of Durham,” says Newman. “While the concepts discussed throughout the workshop likely have other generic applications, we understand that the lessons we learn may be able to be applied elsewhere.” That’s why the organization is planning workshops in partnership with other cities and towns across the state.

More to come

This type of statewide effort is not new for the organization. NCNGN is one of only 15 nationally-recognized organizations participating as a partner with the US IGNITE Smart Gigabit Communities initiative and led a three-city reverse pitch contest across the state that kicked off on February 28, 2017.

Two companies received $19,000 in prize money to continue to develop technology that can solve civic problems. DroPark is a civic parking application and Pano-VR is a collaborative 3D media player. Other companies that formed as a result of the statewide effort include a team that plans to leverage real-time GIS data gathered from industrial drones and a company that takes images of the brain, interprets those images as a 3D model, and prepares it for analysis by middle- and high-school students to enhance understanding of brain neurology.

NCNGN plans to continue their effort to bring broadband access to everyone in North Carolina and to challenge entrepreneurial teams to use smart gigabit internet to build applications that address civic problems or enhance civic awareness in 2018.

“We’re initiating programs designed to encourage the development of gigabit applications that could harness technology to change our communities,” says Newman.