Wednesday, April 17, 2023
Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Announces Inaugural Cohort of Marjorie & Charles Benton Opportunity Fund Fellows
Today, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society introduced its inaugural Marjorie & Charles Benton Opportunity Fund Fellows. The six broadband practitioners, advocates, and researchers are leading efforts to close the digital divide and realize a stronger, more equitable, and more just America.
“As unprecedented support flows from the federal government to states and local communities, there is so much to learn from these innovative efforts to understand how best to bridge gaps in broadband access, adoption, and application. We are thrilled to support the work and are looking forward to sharing the results with our audience of policymakers, funders, non-profits, advocates, and academics,” said Benton Institute Executive Director Adrianne B. Furniss.
As more communities devise their own broadband solutions, leveraging the funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, what makes for successful efforts that are responsive to community needs? Pierrette Renee Dagg will investigate the role community champions play in community connectivity solutions and what factors allow these leaders to succeed. Dagg, who is the Director of Technology Impact Research at Merit Network and a PhD student at University of Toledo, will build on Merit’s work with a number of Michigan communities, examining six to eight community champions in-depth to develop a typology of possible models of leaders. She will share her results through case studies and webinars that spotlight the community champions, their strategies, and their stories.
Dagg said, "I aim to bridge the gap between academic scholarship and practical application to advance issues of technology understanding and information equity. The Opportunity Fund Fellowship will facilitate the investigation of intangible leadership characteristics that I believe are integral to the success of a community’s broadband efforts so that others may benefit from these models."
Like several cities exploring new ways of providing broadband to residents in affordable housing, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is launching a pilot hybrid fiber-mesh network that is expected to connect up to 50 affordable housing developments in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. The pilot network will serve approximately 1,300 households, including 650 families assisted by the agency’s Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program.
With Benton Institute for Broadband & Society support and spearheaded by Dave Seliger, the department’s Chief Digital Equity Officer, HPD will document the learnings from this initiative to share with other municipalities, public housing authorities, and affordable housing organizations across the country. A short film about the pilot network will highlight the impact of providing broadband to families in the participating buildings, as well as the potential of deeper impact throughout the broader community.
“Our agency is extremely excited to be selected for the Opportunity Fund Fellowship and to share our innovative approach to closing the digital divide in affordable housing, while also leveraging next generation research and insights from the other Benton Institute Fellows,” said Seliger.
While Dagg's and Seliger’s work will focus on efforts to improve the availability of broadband, Norma Fernandez, CEO of non-profit EveryoneOn, is researching the barriers to adoption, particularly for low-income women of color. In order to ensure that digital equity planning efforts and broadband policy center the voices of underrepresented and marginalized groups, her qualitative research with income-insecure Latinas and African American/Black women will explore their journeys to broadband adoption, computer ownership, and digital skill development. She aims to understand what facilitates their ability to participate in digital inclusion activities, what challenges they experience, and how their lives are impacted by these activities.
Fernadez said, "I'm thrilled to be part of the Marjorie & Charles Benton Opportunity Fund Fellows and about the opportunity it is providing to understand and lift the digital readiness experiences of underserved women of color, a population that is often overlooked. As states and local agencies build digital equity plans, it is essential that their voices are not just recognized but included."
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is committed to broadband adoption because of its potential to improve and transform people’s lives. Dr. Jorge A. Rodriguez, a clinician-investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, will look at digital inclusion work in healthcare settings. His project will evaluate an equity-focused digital health navigator program in Eastern Massachusetts that supports patients in using telehealth services and patient portals. Working in seven different languages, the navigators have enrolled and trained over 7,000 patients in the patient portal thus far. With the goal of developing best practices that could inform other healthcare systems, Dr. Rodriguez will develop a playbook on planning and implementing a digital health navigator program and assess the impact of integrating digital inclusion resources in healthcare settings.
"It is critical for healthcare systems to be active members of the digital inclusion community," said Dr. Rodriguez. "For this reason, I am excited to join the community as a Benton Fellow. I look forward to contributing to digital inclusion efforts focused on digital literacy. Additionally, it will be amazing to learn from my co-fellows about their work outside of the healthcare system."
Dr. Erezi Ogbo, Assistant Professor at North Carolina Central University, will study the impact of subsidized broadband on historically marginalized communities. Looking at federal, state, and local programs that assist low-income families to get connected, such as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) program and the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), Dr. Ogbo will examine how improved broadband access has impacted the local economies and communities of low-income and minority populations. Through surveys, in-depth interviews, and secondary data analysis, her project will look at outcomes in education, employment, and health.
"It is not enough to address broadband access and affordability barriers. We need to understand how recipients of broadband inclusion programs use the internet, their experiences, and how internet connectivity has impacted their lives," said Dr. Ogbo. "I am excited to be a member of the inaugural cohort of the Marjorie & Charles Benton Opportunity Fund Fellowship and the opportunity it provides to connect with brilliant broadband equity and inclusion researchers. I hope that insights from my work will inform the design of digital equity and inclusion programs that enhance the recipient communities."
While we champion the power of broadband to positively transform our communities, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is also keenly aware that data-driven and networked technologies can expose users to digital extraction, predation, misinformation, and surveillance. Greta Byrum's work will focus on online safety, privacy, and well-being, developing strategic guidance for how state digital equity plans can help new and historically marginalized users navigate the internet safely. A Principal for Broadband and Digital Equity at HR&A Advisors, Byrum is a veteran of the Digital Equity space. She will build on Congress’ mandate to provide "basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity" and work towards a digital culture of consent, safety, and choice.
"It's clear that access to the internet and digital services is critical for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy—yet as we expand access to computers and data-driven services, we must also ensure that new and historically marginalized internet users are safe, supported, and protected online. Alongside the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act's current unprecedented investment in broadband and digital equity comes another historic opportunity: to create an environment where everyone is able to make meaningful and informed choices about how they wish to engage with the digital world," said Byrum.
With this range of projects that examine broadband access, adoption and application, the Opportunity Fund is supporting critical research and resources that can help move our field forward and ensure fast, fair, and open broadband for everyone in the U.S.
Follow the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society website for updates on the fellows’ work in the coming months and watch for the next application round for Opportunity Fund fellowships coming in July 2023.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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