NDIA targets rural, tribal connectivity with $10M Google grant

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) wants to make it easier for rural and tribal communities to get and stay connected, planning to use a four-year grant from Google’s charitable arm to create a corps of experts who will provide digital literacy training and help local residents access low-cost broadband service and devices. These so-called “digital navigators” will be deployed via programs in 18 communities across the country.

Angela Siefer, executive director of NDIA, told Fierce the digital navigator model sprang up during the pandemic, as anchor institutions like schools, libraries, social service agencies and health clinics sought to help residents access critical connectivity services. While NDIA did not create the model, it has been working to standardize it so it can be more easily replicated in other communities. But Siefer noted much of NDIA’s experience to date has been in urban communities. The organization is hoping a $10 million grant it received from Google.org will help it better serve rural and tribal communities.

The Google grant is the single largest NDIA has received. Siefer said in addition to using it to embed digital navigators within trusted anchor institutions, NDIA will use the money to collect data about what’s working and what isn’t to help fine tune its model. To that end, the money will also go toward the creation of new digital navigator training materials, outreach tools and other templates.

“We want to make sure anything NDIA does we want to have a greater impact beyond the project that is receiving those benefits,” Siefer explained. “We have a training now we do with digital navigators. Can we improve that training and how do we customize it for rural and or tribal communities?”

One of the key tasks digital navigators in these communities will tackle is not just getting residents connected, but helping them maintain access through locally available resources.

“We tend to think of people as having internet or not having internet, but for a majority of low-income households it becomes that they have internet sometimes,” she explained. “Maybe it’s based upon a mobile phone and when the data runs out then they don’t. Or it’s a mobile phone but when mom leaves the house, the house doesn’t have service anymore. Or they had wireline service but then they moved and they can’t set up a new one because there’s bad debt with the company…so that’s one of the things we want to be addressing in these particular communities.”

Siefer said in late April or early May NDIA will put out a request for letters of intent from community organizations interested in deploying a navigator program using the Google funding. Those who meet program requirements will be asked to submit a full application. NDIA expects to identify funding recipients within the next few months, she said. At least 6 of the 18 digital navigator programs will be in tribal areas, she added.

“We talk about this as being digital equity’s moment in time. We have people’s attention, there’s federal money…now is the time to not only make good use of that money, but to change systems so that there’s always somebody [to help] and then figuring out how can we have that strong digital equity system,” Siefer concluded.