CH@T: New nonprofit group seeks ‘digital inclusion,’ better broadband for county

Jan. 5 event will feature providers who could help address problems

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The lack of adequate broadband access in rural portions of North Carolina is well documented. This week, we speak with two members of the leadership team from Innovate Chatham, which — in addition to helping local residents learn about digital technology — is preparing to host a county-wide event to facilitate discussion about broadband access.

Burney Waring, Innovate Chatham’s president, is a global consulting engineer. He took his wife Debbie and three children to Louisiana and The Netherlands for 14 years, each, before landing in Chatham in 2010. He enjoys teaching, programming, writing, art, and being around or in water.

Jesse R. Bradley IV is one of the group’s directors. He’s also the program director and founder of the Right Here, Right Now Project, a nonprofit organization formed in 2016 to provide low- to moderate-income communities digital literacy training and access to the tools of technology. He retired from the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation after 28 years as a systems support technician.

Let’s start with your nonprofit organization, Innovate Chatham. What’s the background, scope and focus of your work?

BURNEY WARING: We began as a small group of people getting together to socialize, network and talk about digital technology. We started having people present to us about interesting topics, which we turned into events we called “Chatham Tech Talks.” That was about three years ago, and we have grown to about 70 members.

Along the way, we made contacts in the Chatham school system and began helping out, providing speakers for career days, giving a few engineering lectures, participating as judges in science fairs, and sponsoring a robotics club. This led to our group working with Communities In Schools of Chatham County, which has given our members the chance to tutor kids, mentor them, and teach them computer app and game development. We are currently developing a maker space that we hope to set up at The Alliance in Siler City where we plan to teach kids (and eventually adults) to build digital devices and apps. In general, we want to connect our members’ knowledge and experience to organizations and efforts in Chatham that might benefit.

If you want to help us with any of this, let us know! We have social media links and our email address here: innovatechatham.org

JESSE R. BRADLEY IV: It is becoming more and more of a necessity to understand digital technology (e.g. the web, computers, apps, devices) to be able to live well and have the broadest set of career opportunities. We love it here in Chatham and want to make it easier for kids that grow up here to stay here and flourish. Similarly, we know that many adults could use some help in taking full advantage of digital technology. We want to improve the “digital inclusion” of all Chathamites. That is the focus of our nonprofit, Innovate Chatham, formed only a month ago.

What kinds of issues have the “Chatham Tech Talks” addressed, and what’s been the reception?

WARING: We have had a wide variety of events. For example, we had the geniuses at 3DFS explain software-defined electricity to us. We had one of our members explain how he trenched and distributed fiber optics around his neighborhood. We had a “sounding board” event for local entrepreneurs to get feedback on their business ideas. We had an “Art Meets Tech” event where we had local digital and physical artists show off their work. We had several events about cybersecurity. Generally, we had 20+ people show up pre-pandemic, and a bit less for the events that had to be virtual. We would love to have more people who are enthusiastic about technology join our organization.

When you talk about “digital inclusion,” that involves broadband access. The lack of broadband access — not to mention the lack of good broadband access — has been a hindrance in Chatham County. The N.C. General Assembly has addressed it in part by helping to fund solutions, but in your mind: what are the key roadblocks to access here, and what are the best solutions that most adequately resolve the problem?

BRADLEY: Digital inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information Communication Technologies. This includes five elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. Digital inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.

The digital divide is the gap between those who have affordable access, skills and support to effectively engage online and those who do not. As technology constantly evolves, the digital divide prevents equal participation and opportunity in all parts of life, disproportionately affecting people of color, Indigenous peoples, households with low incomes, people with disabilities, people in rural areas and older adults.

In particular, broadband equity is achieved when all people and communities are able to access and use affordable, high-speed, reliable internet that meets their long-term needs. We hope to get some new ideas going with our event on Jan. 5.

About the event you’re hosting on Jan. 5: What’s going to happen? Why do people need to attend? When it comes to potential solutions that’ll be discussed at your event, what most people want to know is: what’s it going to cost me? As well as: how soon? And: how fast?

WARING: Many of our friends have been left without decent broadband access, even though they live in wealthy and middle-class areas. We started looking for alternatives to the otherwise slow timetable for broadband rollout. We found two providers who say they are willing to build a network for a small community and were willing to come talk to us. One of them, Randolph Communications, is a pure fiber provider. The other, Open Broadband, can tie into fiber and provide fixed wireless broadband within a small area.

At our Jan. 5 event, we will discuss the potential, the process, and the costs involved in getting broadband into a community. It would be quite a success if we could help even one neighborhood gain access to decent broadband. We hope to learn about these solutions, as well as which communities are in need — and if there is something our organization could do to help.

We welcome anyone who is part of a community in need of decent broadband to come to our event, which begins at 5 p.m. on Jan. 5 at the Chatham Agricultural & Conference Center in Pittsboro. The event is free and you can sign up via Eventbrite. The link is here.

What’s the payoff for Chatham County for complete (or at least near-complete) broadband access, particularly when you think about the work-from-home and/or tech-driven job opportunities that exist today?

WARING: Great question. Broadband is already as essential as electricity, water, and roads. Decent broadband access is one of the things that people have to have to even consider moving here. “Do you have good internet?” was the first question I asked before I moved here 10 years ago.

I am a consulting engineer with global clients, and one of my sons works for a major company whose office is in NYC. Many of our members — and many others in Chatham — already have similar opportunities.

Imagine that we could give every person in Chatham that opportunity — allowing them to work in good jobs for businesses that pay the best, that happen to be based elsewhere, anywhere on the planet. Imagine how far our residents’ money would go compared to living in expensive cities. Imagine that their household spending and tax payments stayed here in Chatham. Imagine what that could do for our local businesses, amenities, and infrastructure over time. Imagine how much we could all flourish without losing the things that make Chatham a great place to live.

Ready for a scary thought? Imagine what happens if we don’t. Without good broadband access, people will find better places to live.

BRADLEY: We know broadband is two sides of a coin: the access side — the access to the pipes and wires, and the adoption side — whether a household subscribes to the service. A household or community needs both sides of the metaphorical coin to realize the value that broadband promises. Innovate Chatham recognizes adoption as an equally important factor to addressing the digital divide by leveraging grants and creating partnerships to understand the issue better, pilot innovative ideas, and create viable and sustainable solutions.

Research demonstrates that individuals who adopt broadband are more likely to find jobs, learn new skills, and successfully navigate social services than those who do not adopt. Improving adoption rate is, therefore, a key strategy for education, success, civic engagement and economic growth.

For more information: www.innovatechatham.org

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