In March of 2020, local officials from California to Virginia led an unexpected and unprecedented switch to life-from-home as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the United States. Overnight, schools, public meetings, and city services switched to remote capabilities. 

For local leaders, one goal remained paramount: a continuity of services for every resident, regardless of connectivity status. However, millions of Americans nationwide and thousands within their communities were struggling with fast, affordable, and reliable broadband access. 

Next Century Cities hosted a virtual session entitled, “What We Learned from COVID Must Be Used to Inform Universal Broadband Strategies,” part of a larger discussion on ways to connect every community in the U.S. to broadband. Two local leaders joined us to highlight their work and underscored the importance of learning from the pandemic while crafting plans for the future. 

The panel, moderated by NCC’s Lukas Pietrzak, featured Mayor Mary Casillas Salas of Chula Vista, California, and County Administrator Garry Larrowe of Botetourt County, Virginia. These two leaders hail from opposite sides of the country but stay in pursuit of the same goal for universal broadband adoption.  

Both leaders outlined the work their respective governments had been doing before the start of the pandemic. In early 2020, Chula Vista developed a Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan, identifying a series of actions the City would take to ensure every Chula Vista resident has affordable access to high-speed internet, as well as the skills and devices needed to use it The first of its kind in San Diego County, Mayor Salas emphasized the importance of its digital equity plan and the whole-of-government support it received. Additionally, Administrator Larrowe outlined how Botetourt County had invested approximately $760 million in broadband grant funding prior to COVID-19, generating momentum for essential broadband related programs throughout 2020 and into 2021. 

Mayor Salas and Administrator Larrowe also took time to explore the importance of partnerships, both within and outside of local government. When the pandemic struck, each examined how their municipal governments could partner with school districts to ensure, for example, that every student could complete their school assignments via distance learning. The partnerships did not stop there. In Botetourt County, local officials strengthened relationships with the local electric cooperatives working to connect residents. This partnership has allowed Botetourt to deliver on its universal connectivity goals. Moreover, while both communities vary in demographics, need, and resources,  broadband has become a touchpoint in broader policy conversations. 

As millions of Americans get vaccinated across the country, Chula Vista and Botetourt County are looking past the pandemic and dreaming about the future. With universal connectivity goals in both communities, Mayor Salas and Administrator Larrowe painted an ambitious vision for their municipalities in five to ten years. Alongside other local officials and community leaders, they are planning for a connected future in which residents can take advantage of ubiquitous telehealth options, and improved public safety built on the back of a resilient broadband network. Ultimately, they are focused on improving overall health and wellness, providing pathways for residents to unlock their full digital potential. 

You can view the full conversation with Mayor Mary Casillas Salas and Administrator Gary Larrowe here.