On October 27th, three local officials from NCC member municipalities across the country shared their insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected connectivity in their communities. The Mountain Connect Conference panel discussion featured Candelaria Mendoza, Smart City Coordinator for the City of San Antonio, Texas; Ricky Santiago, Digital Inclusion Manager for the City of Louisville, Kentucky; and Zach Friend, Second District Supervisor for Santa Cruz County, California. The panel was moderated by Francella Ochillo, NCC’s Executive Director, and Corian Zacher, NCC’s Policy Counsel for Local & State Initiatives. 

At the heart of the conversation, panelists discussed the importance of collaboration between local and state governments and with community partners. In each community, COVID-19 has only increased the importance of reliable, affordable, high-quality broadband access as a tool for improving residents’ well-being. 

Across all three communities, connecting students with educational tools quickly became a high priority. At the same time, panelists stressed that students are not the only members of the community who remain disconnected. Digital redlining and poverty both became prevalent themes in the discussion, with panelists urging local leaders across the country to follow historical inequities when attempting to identify members of their communities that persistently lack access.

Although Santa Cruz has the backdrop of Silicon Valley, people living in other parts of the country might not realize that elementary students are completing homework assignments in fast food parking lots. Hurricanes rocking the southeastern U.S. and wildfires raging up the west coast have only worsened existing connectivity challenges. Zach Friend shared that, in the wake of over 1000 homes lost, leaders in Santa Cruz County have never experienced wildfires this large before. Friend attributes Santa Cruz’s success in swiftly rebuilding to implementing local ordinances that make deployment easier, and urges other communities to plan ahead for emergencies and disasters. He stated “The main takeaway for people watching this is: you’re really reliant on your own. Your community needs to develop its own structure of resiliency, of redundancy, and of equity without an expectation or hope, even though there has been innovation at the state and federal level and California’s tried to lead the way on that, that any of that will happen (at the state/federal level).”

In San Antonio, local leaders like Candelaria Mendoza built resiliency into their planning for spending CARES Act funding. According to Mendoza: 

“We submitted a proposal to our city council for them to consider and we embedded equity within it. A $27 million dollar project that basically in its essence is to leverage current assets of the city, current assets of the school district, and other partners to connect up to 20,000 students and 50 neighborhoods. San Antonio is very economically segregated and often finds itself on lists of the most disconnected, so we used data to figure out the 50 most disconnected neighborhoods.” 

At the same time, state-level restrictions on municipal broadband proved difficult for connecting members of the community who are not in school. San Antonio is in the pilot phase of that project, but Mendoza looks forward to building a long-term and sustainable solution so that the City is prepared for future challenges. 

Ricky Santiago beautifully captured the dichotomy between responding retroactively to COVID-19 and planning for the future, stating: 

An analogy I often use is the Three-Rs of Natural Disasters: Rescue, Recovery, and Rebuild. I believe now we are on Rebuild. We are working on the Digital Inclusion Coalition because we know that the digital divide is not going away after COVID and we can’t roll back the things that we have worked so hard [for] to build to keep our families connected. 

Accurate and layered approaches to data analysis are centrally important in Louisville’s digital inclusion work as the community rallies together to ensure that the most vulnerable residents have the broadband access they need.

Each local official closed by sharing something that motivates them to continue their important and impactful work. Santiago discussed the power of new discoveries, explaining the ways that work with healthcare partners that has enabled connectivity to patients with spinal cord injuries. Mendoza cited several ways that broadband access impacts social justice, stating that internet access is “essential for job seeking, workforce development, to learn something, to connect with their families.” Friend concluded with another optimistic outlook: local officials have the power and the responsibility to quickly connect residents with the high-quality broadband they need, regardless of whether maps show that the household is connected.

Mountain Connect registrants can view the panel here by entering the email address used to register. If you are a local official and are interested in participating in a speaking event or sharing your insight with NCC, you can find staff contact information here.