Pandemic-related disruption was particularly acute in remote, underserved communities. Along with partners like the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), Cisco is helping harness the power of technology to drive more inclusivity and opportunity for underserved populations and communities by bridging remote digital divides through technology and education.

For many of us, the pandemic caused disruption to our lives–forcing us to work or study from home–but for others, it drove home existing inequities in access to digital services.Nowhere in the US is this more apparent than on remote tribal lands, where internet access is often weak or nonexistent. In 2019, the American Indian Policy Institute published the Tribal Technology Assessment: The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands, which found that 18 percent of tribal reservation residents had no internet access at home at all, while 33 percent rely on internet service from a smartphone at home, often with ‘spotty’ service.

While the connected world leveraged the digital realm for business continuity, healthcare, and education, underserved communities fell further behind. Beyond the devastating infection rates, the lack of internet access eroded educational and business opportunities on tribal lands, and worsened long-standing problems around chronic illnesses, isolation, and addictions.

I was recently joined on our Education Now podcast by Kristen Nichols, VP of Global Business Operations, Cisco, and Alexander Grandon, of AIHEC. We discussed the challenges–and opportunities–of digital connectivity in remote tribal lands, especially with regards to accessing IT skills education through our partnership with Cisco Networking Academy.

AIHEC provides leadership and influences public policy on American Indian and Alaska Native higher education issues through advocacy, research, and programmatic initiatives. AIHEC serves more than 27,000 students in 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities across 16 states, serving students from more than 250 federally recognized Indian tribes and 30 states.

The challenges of bridging remote digital divides in these underserved areas are manifold, but ultimately come down to two main factors: The fundamental economics of delivering broadband services to sparsely-populated areas can be prohibitive; and the technological skills needed to manage and use the infrastructure being locally available and affordable.

Both challenges can be addressed through technology and education.

AIHEC Advisor, Alexander Grandon
AIHEC Advisor, Alexander Grandon

Cisco is delivering a new generation of network infrastructure technologies that can provide more capacity and greater flexibility at a lower cost per subscriber. These technologies can make it much easier and less expensive for service providers to expand their offerings in rural regions. The Cisco Rural Broadband Innovation Center in North Carolina, features the latest internet technologies to bridge remote digital divides by extending connectivity to rural communities.

“Cisco is using technology innovation to change the economics of the internet,” says Kristen. “By reducing what it costs to build and operate networks, we can empower service and internet providers to create a more pervasive internet, enabling more people to be connected.”

And through Cisco Networking Academy and partners, such as the AIHEC, students living on native lands are learning the IT skills needed to manage these changing technologies. One of our Academy Support Centers, Platinum, partnered with AIHEC and advisor Alexander Grandon to provide training opportunities for IT Essentials, CCNA 1 and Cybersecurity courses to 74 participants in 22 locations in 11 states. These opportunities led to summer camps working with high schools and potential to start classes with higher education tribal colleges.

“One of the biggest opportunities was in upskilling their existing IT staff as it’s meant that these employees have been able to stay supporting their own rural tribal colleges,” Alex Grandon, AIHEC Advisor.

“In the field of information technology, the value of constantly learning and getting back to the basics cannot be overstated,” says Akpabio Akpabio, PhD, Director of Information Technology, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College. “I am glad to have been accorded the opportunity to take these courses with Cisco Networking Academy, and I intend share the knowledge gained by instructing and helping others on the job and outside the job.”

AIHEC was a recipient of a Networking Academy Be the Bridge award this year for leading initiatives to empower all people with career possibilities by transforming the lives of learners, educators, and communities through the power of technology, education, and career opportunities.

As the world starts to look past the effects of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that inclusive growth is paramount. Digital connectivity determines access to economic and social opportunity. But investing in infrastructure alone is not enough–the benefits of connectivity depend on education and skills training. Cisco is working to deliver on both fronts, and with Networking Academy partners such as AIHEC, helping bridge remote digital divides.

Smiling woman working on a laptop from her home office thanks to bridging remote digital divides
Digital connectivity leads to more economic and social opportunity.

About Cisco Networking Academy

Cisco Networking Academy is the world’s largest and longest running corporate social responsibility education program in the world. We’re particularly proud of our collective impact, especially for under-resourced and underrepresented people in our communities.

Our mission is to empower all people with career possibilities by transforming the lives of learner, educators, and communities through the power of technology, education, and career opportunities.

We partner with nearly 12,000 education institutions across 180 countries and offer curriculum in 27 languages, having trained 15.1 million learners, with 2.9 million people attributing jobs to their experience with Networking Academy.

Our inclusive workforce development program equips educators with leading curriculum (licensed free to educational and non-profit institutions), Webex by Cisco, and resources and learners with industry-recognized skills and certifications. This is a true end-to-end skills-to-jobs program connecting learners with peers, mentors, and job opportunities through our job-matching engine, Talent Bridge.

Learn more about Cisco Networking Academy.

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Rebecca Chisolm

Regional Manager, North America

Cisco Networking Academy