Municipal Funding Programs Help Bridge the Digital Divide and Build Community Connections

Local-level digital inclusion funding programs can not only provide support for community initiatives, but can also help inform and complement city-led digital inclusion efforts and city online service delivery. In 1997, Seattle became the first city to establish such a funding program, and several municipalities have since followed suit.


Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund
Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund was the first of its kind at the local level, and has served as an example for many communities. As it currently exists, the fund provides awards of up to $50,000 for digital equity and inclusion projects. 

The program was established in 1997 when city leaders realized that more and more information was going online, and it was critical that all Seattle residents have the ability to access information as well as post it. The city designated cable funds to invest in community-driven projects designed to help close the digital divide. The new program was modeled after the city’s Neighborhood Matching Fund, which provides matching dollars for neighborhood-improvement and community-building projects.

The fund launched with a budget of $100,000. More than two decades later, it has a budget of $320,000 and funds roughly 12 organizations each year. Recipients are required to provide a 50 percent grant match, though volunteer labor, materials, professional services, and cash are all eligible to count toward the match. The core goals of the fund include increasing access to free and low-cost broadband, empowering residents with digital literacy skills, and ensuring access to devices and technical support. Recipients may use funds for equipment, staffing, and other project-based needs. 

All projects serve historically underrepresented communities and leverage existing partnerships and resources. In designing the program, the city made a conscious decision to support a broad range of organizations through an open, competitive process. A volunteer Community Technology Advisory Board helps staff evaluate project proposals. 

The Technology Matching Fund supports community-led initiatives while also helping shape the city’s digital inclusion strategy, says David Keyes, Seattle’s Digital Equity Program Manager. “The program has enabled us to build trusted relations and exchanges with community groups. This helps the city better understand their needs and program impacts, as well as share resources and important city information for residents on topics like low-income internet options or safety,” he said. It’s not just handing out money, but part of a broader strategy to build a learning and connected community.” We are also able to pass along knowledge of community needs and best practices to other practitioners and investors.

From its inception through 2018, the fund has provided over $5 million to 300 projects. This year, the Millionair Club Charity expanded a computer lab to help people experiencing homelessness and poverty find stable jobs and housing. Fifty-eight participants graduated from the charity’s tech training program, and 62 percent have found full-time jobs or are in temp-hire positions. “This grant is empowering people with job opportunities and tools to become self-sufficient,” said Delia Burke, who manages the city’s Technology Matching Fund. “It’s giving them a way out of their situations.”


Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities Program (GTOPs)
Seattle’s program served as direct inspiration for Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities Program, which was created in 2001 to support smaller, grassroots organizations doing digital inclusion work in Austin. The program’s specific vision is to help create “a community where all citizens have access to the internet, devices and knowledge needed to fully participate in digital society.”

GTOPs makes awards of $10,000-$25,000 available to about 7-9 programs per year, and as of 2019 also makes retired, refurbished city computer devices (desktops and laptops) available for award. There is a one-to-one match required from awardees, though the match may include in-kind volunteer labor, donated professional services, donated materials specifically related to the project, or cash. Awardees must be Austin-based non-profits, and organizations are encouraged to apply as consortia when common interests align.

There are no specific requirements attached to the funds, and awardees have leveraged the program to develop a gamut of initiatives, including:

  •     The Austin Speech Labs provides communication therapy for stroke survivors
  •     The Housing Authority’s Free-Net computer labs offer free digital literacy and information technology workforce training programs
  •     Texas Folklife Resources create audio documentation and radio productions about community tradition and family history
  •     Latinitas Inc.’s Gigabit Girls program empowers Latina youth and other youth of color through digital media, coding, and robotics

The open-ended nature of the grants has also allowed different community needs to be met over time. Rondella Hawkins, Austin’s Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Officer, says that while the program’s core goals have remained the same throughout its 18-year tenure, it’s flexible enough to stay current and ensure the community has access to emerging technologies. 

GTOPs’ mission is to help create digital opportunities and promote equity in innovative ways. In that way, says Hawkins, “it helps build the foundation” for city priorities.


Boston’s Digital Equity Fund
Boston’s Digital Equity Fund began in 2017 when the city first offered $35,000 in total to local community organizations via a selective application process. The first awardee was the Castle Square Tenants Organization, which used the money to provide paid internships and an audio/visual college course in partnership with the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

The current fund is used to support projects that advance digital equity in Boston by increasing digital resources available to residents. In 2019, the fund will award three to five grants of $20,000-$35,000, totalling $100,000. There are no matching requirements.  

The fund is designed to support local projects and communities. In order to be eligible, organizations must be Boston-based and serve Boston residents, and one of the core principles of the grant is to support projects that make decisions based on the needs of their community.


San Jose’s Digital Inclusion Fund
San Jose announced the creation of its Digital Inclusion Fund in February 2019, and plans to allocate $1 million to city programs and community organizations with the first set of grants in the fall. The fund includes five program streams: access, devices, awareness campaigns, building digital literacy skills, and innovation pilots. The fund’s current goal is to connect 50,000 San Jose households with devices and broadband connectivity of at least 25/3 Mbps over the next ten years.

 San Jose’s fund is innovative in that it’s supported by the revenue from fees paid by wireless carriers who deploy small cells in the public rights of way. The city and the California Emerging Technology Fund, a state nonprofit that will manage the Digital Inclusion Fund, will also raise private funding for the program.


Local digital inclusion funding programs can help target support to impactful projects, and can also be a tool for local governments to engage with and more deeply understand community needs. Seattle’s Keyes encourages municipalities that are interested in starting their own funds to think of the program not just as a way to hand out money, but as part of a larger equity effort: “Access to affordable broadband and skills training should be at the foundational level of city strategies for services and inclusion.”

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