Technology continues to rapidly evolve, pushing state and local governments to innovate just as quickly to keep up with their resident’s evolving needs. As state and local governments take a more active role in expanding broadband to reach underserved groups, both urban and rural, they also must build the digital delivery of critical government services in ways that are accessible to all residents. As residents, local businesses, and other users seek a frictionless digital experience when accessing government, educational, and economic resources, the focus on digital inclusion has now become a necessity.
Collaborative, long-term strategic planning is critical to inclusive broadband expansion
Governments are taking a more expansive view of digital inclusion and creating formal plans to address connectivity gaps. For many, this work begins by recognizing that access to the Internet not only depends on broadband availability but also affordability, access to devices, and digital literacy to train residents to access digital services.
The pandemic highlighted the reality of limited and unequal access to broadband internet. While some emergency solutions helped improve access, significant gaps persist.
- More than 40% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year lack access to home broadband, according to the Pew Research Center.¹ That means nearly half of lower-income households don’t have access to tools to fully participate in remote work, learning, and community services.
- Forty-one percent don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer, and 59% don’t own tablets.
- The number who rely on a smartphone as their sole source of internet access has more than doubled since 2013.
While fiber remains the goal of federal, state, and local initiatives, other technologies can address immediate access challenges. Fixed wireless backhaul and 5G can rapidly improve access in specific geographic areas. In 2022, for example, the city of Fort Worth, Texas, (read case study) rolled out Wi-Fi access to 40,000 residents in five underserved neighborhoods using wireless backhaul technology.²
“While we’re still trying to address short-term gaps to some degree, many municipalities are looking to long-term goals. This includes how they can expand broadband to reach their underserved populations to improve economic conditions for their communities,” says Albert Garcia, Cisco broadband lead for the public sector.
Cisco Suggested Timeline for the Broadband Planning Process
As state and local governments seek their individual paths to building better government, our team at Cisco is actively developing the tools you need to expand digital inclusion. This includes our latest guide detailing our Collaborative Planning Model Guidebook (download now) that can help you better understand how to plan for the expansion of broadband in your community.
Realizing the long-term vision of digital inclusion will require jurisdictions to strategically invest money like federal pandemic relief and stimulus funding as well as broader grants. Funding to help states and localities adopt digital equity plans is also available, and private-public partnerships present additional opportunities. Government leaders recognize that broadband investments that include underserved populations provide economic development in addition to better education and health outcomes for residents.
“It’s important to think of fiber as an asset to the community,” Garcia says. “Communities with infrastructure in the ground have saved money while expanding services and capabilities to the community.”
Local governments can prepare in a few key ways:
- Examine your infrastructure for ways to accelerate fiber deployment, including improving right-of-way permitting processes.
- Prioritize fiber in renegotiating existing broadband agreements.
- Collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, including providers, your agencies, and customers such as schools, colleges, and nonprofits.
Digital inclusion requires digital government services
A key factor of digital inclusion will be government employees’ ability to collaborate internally and engage residents remotely in real-time. With persistent worker shortages in both private and public sectors, governments are accelerating adoption of self-service, automation, and collaboration technologies to speed service, expand reach and allow their workers to focus more intently on the critical moments that matter for residents. They are also finding that investments into consolidated government portals, mobile applications, and contact centers with omnichannel call/chat/web/text lower the cost of services and provide richer data to measure and improve service accessibility across key dimensions of their resident population.
As residents have become accustomed to digital engagement with business, they are ready for and increasingly expect the same from government. These demands are converging, according to Justin Jordan, Cisco’s senior product manager for Webex Calling.
Modernizing collaboration technology improves the ’digital front door’ for constituent interactions.
Modernizing digital collaboration technology can help government workers be more efficient and improve what Jordan calls “the digital front door” for constituent interactions. That means offering tools that support a mobile-first approach in which government services — whether delivered online or using kiosks or terminals in offices — have a consistent user experience. And the need for digital inclusion means it’s also important that tools include real-time translation and transcription capabilities. An excellent example is Cisco’s recent work helping the City of El Paso, Texas launch the El Paso Helps online portal (more here).
The El Paso Helps online portal serves as a one-stop shop for connecting vulnerable and at-risk residents with a live person for help accessing critical government services related to 24/7 street outreach, shelter, food, COVID-19 assistance, mental health counseling, and more.
El Paso Helps is an outgrowth of the city’s successful pandemic pilot program, the Delta Welcome Center (learn more). Webex by Cisco and various Cisco networking infrastructure solutions support the portal and it is a great example of the innovation possible when public and private sector organizations collaborate together.
New funding models also provide opportunities for governments to move forward. “Collaboration in the past may have been a standalone cost center, but it’s now integrated into other services,” Jordan says. As collaboration tools continue to converge, opportunities exist to upgrade phone, mobile, and online collaboration systems into a unified communications model. That’s something governments are quickly adopting.
“A tool used five years ago might not be the right tool anymore. It used to take five to seven years for government to catch up to the commercial sector,” he says. “That has shortened significantly — we’re seeing those decisions being made now.”
Innovation can also be leveraged as a tool for digital inclusion. By creating a culture of innovation, government leaders can cultivate an approach to governing that truly engages and benefits citizens and workers. And, in the end, create communities that are more self-aware, engaged, and sustainable.
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