Opportunity Miami
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Opportunity Miami

Connecting Miamians to broadband internet

Miami Connected’s Jorge Gonzalez (right) at The Children’s Trust Family Expo (Credit: The Children’s Trust)

Q&A with Miami Connected

At Opportunity Miami, we’re focused on exploring questions critical to Greater Miami’s economic future, including ensuring all Miamians have access to hi-speed, broadband internet. Currently, 77 percent of households have access, but the recently-passed Federal Infrastructure bill marks the biggest federal investment ever to get everyone online. Many are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally end the digital divide.

To learn more, we sat down with Jorge Gonzalez, digital access director at The Miami Foundation. Gonzalez is leading the Foundation’s efforts around the collaborative Miami Connected program, a public-private partnership launched in March 2021 and led by The Miami Foundation and Achieve Miami to make Miami-Dade the most technologically inclusive county in the nation. Our conversation is below.

Opportunity Miami: Nearly one in four Miami-Dade County residents are disconnected from the internet, and Miami is the second least-connected large city in the United States. ​ What is Miami Connected? What are you guys doing to solve this?

JG: Miami Connected is a public-private partnership looking to collaboratively address the digital divide. We have a three pillar strategy: first, increasing broadband access, making sure that families have at-home access to high-quality and reliable internet. Once they have access, we move onto our second pillar: digital literacy or digital skills training. There’s another very big gap here — families have access, but they may not know how to make the most of it for things as simple as looking for information on the internet, finding jobs, or putting together a resume. Our last pillar is workforce opportunities: preparing people for careers in technology. There, it’s really about connecting to the existing ecosystem and identifying gaps we can fill and pathways we can help bridge.

The Miami Tech movement is bringing a lot of companies to town; we’ve already heard from them saying they’re looking to fill roles for things like help desk representatives. It’s not always the high-level software engineer or data scientist positions people think of, making it an accessible point of entry into the tech sector that many people in our community are ready for. With a little bit of upskilling, we’re creating those pathways, and people can participate in the new economy that we’re seeing flourish.

In the broadband access area, we’re focusing on families that either aren’t connected to the internet, or are connected but at a high financial cost relative to their circumstances, and we’re providing two years of internet at no cost to them through our philanthropic funding. In tandem, we’re working with private sector partners — particularly the internet service providers, municipal leaders and county leaders — to support our long-term strategy. We’re exploring how we can address broadband at a community level and affect systems-level change to meet the immediate need while also investing in something that will transform this in ways that go across generations.

So far, 1,500 families have signed up for the Miami Connected program. Of these families, 28% of them reported not having at-home internet service beforehand. This is how we’re closing the gap, in additional to lessening the financial burden for all families who have signed up. To make sure we support families the whole way through the process, we’ve provided over 2,000 hours of individual technical assistance and digital navigation support.

As a community, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity right now. There’s a focus on connectivity in communities due to COVID, and federal funding allocated to connection that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. We’re working on maximizing that to make a cohesive plan, guiding our communities to work together and leverage our collective strengths, and address barriers to access.

OM: Can you talk more about the federal funding you mentioned, like the recently-passed Federal Infrastructure Bill? This bill has been groundbreaking for our country — the first of its kind. What are the implications of a bill like this? What could it do for Miami-Dade residents?

JG: Sure. Federal funding is coming to fruition in different ways. Most recently and significantly, the passing of the Federal Infrastructure Bill has allocated $65 billion to increase broadband access and affordability. This is a huge investment — one that we will likely not see again. While a large focus is on increasing physical infrastructure in rural areas across the country, there‘s also a significant focus on addressing the affordability issue, the biggest barrier in urban communities like Miami-Dade.

Affordability is also being addressed through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides qualifying families up to a $30 monthly discount toward internet service, and a one-time discount of up to $100 toward purchasing a device. This is the successor to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB), which resulted from the American Rescue Plan. Eligibility for the Affordable Connectivity Program is pretty broad, so it’s accessible to many people and the word is still getting out there about it.

There’s also federal funding that previously came directly to counties, municipalities, schools and libraries through the American Rescue Plan. All in all, there is significant funding that has been and will be allocated across Miami-Dade.

The magic will happen if we, as a community, come together: if the county is doing one part, the school district can complement those efforts in one way, cities in another way, and Miami Connected, through philanthropic funding, in yet another different and complementary way. Then we can approach it as one puzzle that comes together instead of as segmented pieces.

As the funding environment quickly evolves, Miami Connected’s doing the same to make sure the program fills the gaps that still exist. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is currently providing families with longer-lasting discounts toward internet service, so we’re featuring that as the preferred opportunity for families. We’re shifting more funding to drive awareness about these opportunities and grow our digital navigation services to help families not just get connected, but also connect them with skilling and workforce opportunities.

OM: So why does this matter?

JG: You and I are meeting on Zoom, and this is the perfect example of why this matters. Everything is going online. Even with children back in classrooms, there’s still homework online, and educators are still relying on online platforms — and that’s just for students. Their parents and other adults need the internet to engage in economic opportunities, look for jobs, work from home and know what’s going on in the community. With broadband access, you can participate more in your community, access public meetings online, learn about different opportunities, and even be informed when it comes to local elections. Increasingly, the world is moving online. And if you don’t have that access, starting from a very young age, you’re missing out on opportunities… and that gap is only growing as time passes.

OM: What role can libraries or other community centers play in this?

JG: We’ve been in conversation with Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS), and they’re being big champions of this, promoting at-home connectivity in ways that are integrated with what they already do. Their tablet lending program gives access to internet-enabled tablets that people can check out and have at home. MDPLS has a lot of digital resources available: everything from online tutoring, to homework help, to LinkedIn Learning, and other resources that many people don’t even know about.

MDPLS is also making good use of its physical spaces for digital literacy programs. If you think about people who might not feel comfortable turning on the computer and using the mouse to click around, those are the kind of people who can be served. And it’s more than competency or literacy that they’re building — they’re creating a really powerful shared learning environment, where you can get comfortable with the internet thanks to people around you, and you can build up to the point where you can go online at home and keep building your own journey.

OM: What kind of actions can people take to help achieve universal broadband access?

JG: At the government level, from state to local to municipal, it’s really important to align efforts as much as possible. We need to understand the ecosystem, who’s doing what with the funding that’s becoming available, and understand where the needs are. Even before the pandemic, there have been related line items in budgets, and we can really make the most of that, see where we can leverage best practices from other communities, and work together to have a comprehensive strategy for the region.

I think our community leaders do a great job already, and continue to support the organizations they lead and work with. A lot of organizations in the community have been providing hands-on digital literacy opportunities in different languages. Connecting people with those opportunities is helpful, and local leaders spreading the word is hugely important.

On the individual level, similarly, connecting people with resources, advocating for what we need with local leaders, and rallying behind initiatives are all important steps we can take. It starts at home — if you have loved ones who are still trying to get there, and get more familiar with technology, a lot of times providing that support and helping them access some of these resources can be hard but is critically important. Helping people build more comfort with technology is also essential, because a person’s comfort level can be a barrier to access and adoption. So doing what we can within our own circles to help make that more normalized will make a big difference.

Getting the word out is largely a no-cost lift for people — but for an organization, a trusted community member, a friend or a family member, getting the word out about these opportunities is hugely beneficial. We don’t want these opportunities to go under-utilized; if we show and validate that there’s a need for it, we’ll make a case for additional opportunities, and normalize a space of increased opportunity for everyone. This, I think, should be top of mind for everyone.

At Miami Connected, we’re always looking for partners to help drive awareness and get the word out to families across Miami-Dade. We say that our partners are the ones that make the magic happen, and that is the goal with collective impact. For any organizations, groups or individuals looking to get involved and support, they can reach out to us at info@miamiconnected.org.

OM: You have mentioned many different opportunities and resources that have become available — where can people go to learn more?

It is a good problem to have that there are so many opportunities that they are hard to keep up with — but it is indeed an area where we, as a community, can improve. Currently, resources and opportunities are being shared out from different places in different ways — having a more cohesive, steady drumbeat of messaging would help our community better navigate and benefit from all that is available.

Currently, community members should stay tuned to what they are hearing from their trusted institutions and organizations that regularly share information and opportunities. I’m talking about Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, The Children’s Trust, libraries and our rich community of nonprofit organizations. We also highlight resources and opportunities on MiamiConnected.org and want to continue growing that as a community resource along with all of our partners.

OM: Let’s talk about building a vision for 2040. What would be the ideal scenario here?

JG: First, it would be great to see universal broadband adoption throughout the county. We’ll see the benefits of that in different ways. On the individual level, income will go up, and small business profitability will also go up. And really, the overall cost for broadband will decrease.

Second, digital literacy is extremely important here. It is ideal that, from a young age, kids really know how to utilize the tools they have. And adults as well, they’ll be able to access all the opportunities that are open to them. Having our baseline of digital literacy go up as a community creates opportunities and efficiencies across the board.

Finally, I think the Miami Tech movement will be much more robust by 2040, so broadband access will help make sure everyone can plug in. One example that comes to mind for me: let’s say you have somebody that has worked as a receptionist in an office. This person, by default, has customer service skills, knows how to engage people, knows how to do some level of billing and provide support. With a little bit of upskilling, they can provide help desk support at one of the emerging tech companies here. And making that onramp as accessible as possible would open a world of opportunities for the changing economy, and is something we’d love to have in place by 2040.

Jorge Gonzalez is digital access director at The Miami Foundation. Learn more about Miami Connected’s program here.

Opportunity Miami is powered by the Miami-Dade Beacon Council.

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