Closing the Statewide Digital Divide Starts with Community

University of Wisconsin Extension (UWEX) is known for extending the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state through continuing education, cooperative extension, business and entrepreneurship, and broadcast and media innovations. It makes sense, then, that it is also the base for the state’s evolving digital adoption initiative, which is run through the Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center.

To you and me, UW-Extension’s program looks to be well-established and hugely successful. However, they still talk about their program as a “pre-game warm-up” where they are setting the stage for what needs to happen regarding access and adoption in the state. They continue to work to understand the need so they can address it.

The roots of UW’s program can be traced back to a former UW-Extension member who had been doing research on digital adoption for some time. He had the data and understood the need. His research became the catalyst for the program that exists today. Based on his data, the Center pursued an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus grant, which they used to install more than 600 miles of fiber to connect community anchor institutions in four Wisconsin communities; and to launch pilot adoption programs in five Wisconsin communities. Working with county officials, extension educators, and other community-based representatives who reported back on what their local citizens needed, UWEX built a bottom-up awareness of adoption need. This awareness led to programs geared toward seniors, veterans, students, and low-income residents.

When the grant program ended in 2012/2013, UWEX chose to focus their ongoing efforts around adoption initiatives for these specific audiences as well as new ones. They worked with the Public Service Commission on a statewide mapping effort to identify gaps according to Federal standards, and collaborated with nonprofits and other community-based organizations where they were able to widen their reach. Their engagement and influence was critical to the overall success of the program. The Center worked with external partners and brought in major stakeholders, such as telco providers, state agencies (i.e. Public Service), economic development organizations, city Chambers, foundations, associations, educational institutions, and county boards. They shared information, cleared up misunderstandings on both sides, and addressed the needs of individual counties.

Despite the unique factors facing each county, they had one thing in common: a need for educational training. This lead to UWEX’s broadband bootcamps, designed to answer questions and empower communities. Bootcamps provided answers for questions like:

  • I’m not a techie. What do I actually need to know to get broadband for our community?
  • How do I have this conversation with my telco representatives?
  • How do I identify a broadband champion in my community?
  • How do I move my community forward, in access or adoption or both?
  • How do I identify and work with community partners for access/adoption?
  • How do I identify who needs what?
  • How do I get started?

Measuring Success

Ideally, UWEX would measure adoption efforts by subscription rates,  but this proved challenging. Instead, they measure success by the number of counties involved, broadband bootcamps completed, and the number of partners or businesses that came to the events. “Demand is our greatest measurement criteria,” says Jennifer Smith, head of Communications & E-Commerce Research/Training for UW’s Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center. When a county or community group says, ‘I want a bootcamp, or an e-commerce training, or a presentation here too,’ we know we’re achieving our goals.”

Wish List

UWEX will tell you they will have won the game when they have eradicated the need for the Center. That would mean their job is done. Until then, their immediate future involves focusing on specific niches where there continues to be a divide: elderly, low-income, small business and e-commerce. For these groups, the Center continues to work with communities to look for solutions related to physical access, money for equipment, and pathways to adoption.

Advice to Others

For other communities or individual nonprofits interested in developing a digital adoption program, Jennifer offers this advice:

  1. Access and adoption go hand in hand.
  2. Be collaborative. Work with internal and external stakeholders who can influence or advance mission. No matter what area, sector or demographic, broadband is critical.

Find a local champion. They know and understand the community and its needs.

Cassie Bair
Managing Director
Mobile Citizen
Cassie Bair is the Chief Business Development Executive of Voqal’s Mobile Citizen initiative, which advances social equity through access by providing low-cost wireless 4G internet exclusively to nonprofits, educational entities and social welfare agencies. She firmly believes technology should be used for social good and has a unique professional mix of nonprofit and start-up experience. Her passion is to unite nonprofits and social enterprises with the opportunities mobile technology presents.