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Net Inclusion 2024: A North Carolina Love Story

North Carolina was a strong contingent at Net Inclusion!

This year, I spent Valentine’s Day with almost 1,300 people in Philadelphia for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s (NDIA) 2024 Net Inclusion conference where we celebrated our love for digital equity! While this was my second time at this conference, it was my first as a part of IEI’s BAND-NC team so it was meaningful to engage with topics with a statewide lens. IEI’s 2020 Emerging Issues Forum, ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity, was fittingly all about digital inclusion and served to launch the BAND-NC program. Four years later, at the biggest Net Inclusion conference yet, I was struck by the continued momentum. The digital equity movement’s growth is a testament to not only its importance but also its deep interconnectedness with so many other movements, issues, opportunities and aspects of life.

It is no surprise that the wind-down of the successful and vital Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) was a huge topic throughout the conference. It was clear from various speakers, including Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman (FCC) Jessica Rosenworcel during her fireside chat with NDIA’s Executive Director Angela Siefer, that the fight for the ACP or similar supports will continue. There was a consistent call for not just the next round of funding for the ACP, but rather a sustained program that communities can rely on well into the future. 

Another big topic was the upcoming Digital Equity Act funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). There will be two rounds of funding coming this year: capacity grants through the NC Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) and national competitive grants. NDIA Senior Programs Manager Paolo Balboa gave an incredibly helpful presentation on the funding and how to best prepare. As you can see, much of the content from the conference is available through NDIA’s YouTube channel. I recommend watching the Building Research and Data-Backed Digital Equity Strategies and A View from the Digital Divide in the Black Rural South panels, as well as the final plenary on Digital Inclusion Work in Difficult Political Environments

One of my favorite parts of Net Inclusion is the site tour where attendees have the chance to visit various organizations and groups in the area working on digital inclusion. This year, I had the opportunity to visit PhillyCam, the Dornsife Center at Drexel University, Philly Community Wireless and the Free Library of Philadelphia. I was inspired by the innovative way PhillyCAM used its platform and space to support digital equity – from hosting digital skill-building shows on its public access network to offering technology to the community to create their own media. The folks at Philly Community Wireless also gave us a tour of the Norris Square neighborhood where they have worked with a local internet service provider to set up an incredible mesh network across various buildings to create a free wifi network across the neighborhood. Meeting people on the ground and seeing their projects in action always gets my mind going on how we can replicate things in our own communities.

Podcasting room at PhillyCAM

Conferences are always re-energizing and take a while to process. As I continue to go through my notes, follow up with connections, and share resources with our partners, I wanted to share a few initial takeaways. 

  • This work is a marathon, not a sprint! It is important to take the time to foster connections with people locally, statewide and beyond. The digital equity community is extensive and collaborative. I recommend signing up for BAND-NC’s monthly newsletter to stay in the loop and joining the NDIA community as an affiliate, especially to learn more about what’s happening nationally. 
  • It is key that we connect people to devices and digital skill-building opportunities while we concurrently expand broadband infrastructure and affordability. As a speaker from the STEM Alliance said, “It is not as simple as if you build it they will come” (referring to broadband infrastructure). All aspects of digital inclusion are important.
  • As we continue to develop and refine digital inclusion plans and projects, it is necessary to be mindful of how much we are asking of our communities in terms of data collection and stakeholder engagement. As practitioners and researchers, we should take time to build strong relationships, show up to events, and bring resources and support.
  • There is a big need for North Carolina-based convenings around digital inclusion! There are so many people in North Carolina working on digital equity and we need more, regular statewide gatherings that mirror the opportunities of Net Inclusion.

It is that last big takeaway that has me the most excited. On June 4, BAND-NC will host a North Carolina Digital Inclusion Gathering at Blue Ridge Community College. This will be the first of hopefully many statewide conferences for our growing community of local, tribal, regional and state governments, non-profits, funders, educational institutions and others all focused on digital inclusion. Save the date! 

We here at IEI are looking forward to continuing to do what we do best—what we love—bringing people together across North Carolina.