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Urban Broadband – Mecklenburg County

Written by: Lea Efird

Both Digital Charlotte and the CDIA are recognized as leaders in the nation for this work and can inform efforts in other communities. CDIA’s goal of digital inclusion touches on themes of racial, age, socioeconomic, and educational equity. Bruce Clark, the executive director of Digital Charlotte, says it can have a profound positive effect on individuals and families. “No child should have to go to the public library or buy a Coca-Cola at a restaurant in order to do their homework,” he says in an interview. Affordable internet access in the home and having a computer, rather than just a smartphone, are some of the key metrics by which the CDIA is measuring, and reducing, the digital divide in Charlotte.



The Challenge

North Carolinians without access to adequate and affordable broadband, computers, digital skills, and technology support fall into what’s called the digital divide. In North Carolina, the divide is quite large, despite having a robust broadband system overall as a state. This divide negatively impacts communities and individuals in a host of ways, including limiting their ability to effectively participate in the economy. Despite its urban infrastructure, Charlotte has gaps in broadband coverage affected by race, income, and education. Charlotte’s rate of internet use (81%) outpaces the national rate of 78%. However, this internet usage is disproportionate across several groups in Charlotte.

For example, only 75% of African American households and 70% of Latin households have a computer with a broadband internet subscription, compared to 92% of white households. Just 71% of adults over 65 years old have a computer with a broadband subscription, whereas 84% of adults aged 18-64 and 84% of individuals under 18 years old do. Education appears to affect internet access as well—79% of high school graduates without post-secondary education and 55% of adults with no high school diploma have a computer and a broadband subscription, which is significantly less than the 94% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

This gap influences economic mobility for these individuals and families, limiting educational attainment, skills for the job market, access to public safety alerts, household income, and healthcare options. The inequity of broadband has effects that start early in life; for example, there is a K-12 homework gap because some students do not have access to online homework in their homes, negatively affecting their learning and academic performance. This challenge exists even in counties with high county-wide adoption rates, and disproportionately affects students of color and students from low income households.

The Solution

The Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance (CDIA) is a collaboration of public and private groups that worked together to develop a plan to reduce Charlotte’s digital divide. The CDIA formed with the understanding that the digital divide limits economic mobility and that closing it could increase opportunity for Charlotte residents. CDIA provides a space for digital stakeholders to convene and discuss the challenges facing Charlotte, as well as ideas and best practices. The organization takes on an advocacy role, supporting policy work and leading specific initiatives.

CDIA wrote a playbook that outlines specific goals, strategies, and benchmarks for decreasing the digital divide in Charlotte. Each “play” includes a thorough description of the proposed or implemented program, all of which are geared toward strengthening digital equity in Charlotte in six areas of focus: access, technology, digital literacy, standards and policy, advocacy, and opportunity. Each play also includes a descriptive measurement of success. The plays include varied interventions, such as the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership digital inclusion program and Student Mobile Hotspot Lending. Their goal is to reduce the digital divide by at least 10% by 2026 through a collaborative, collective impact model with many public, private, and nonprofit organizations in the city.

Members of the CDIA meeting to discuss progress on reducing the digital divide in Charlotte.

The Players

The Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance leads this collaborative effort, but has many partners, including Digital Charlotte, The City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Goodwill Industries, and Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D). Representatives from these organizations are included in the Alliance, which allows them to shape CDIA’s innovative programs. These partners collaborate on specific programs in the CDIA playbook, leveraging their resources and expertise in specific areas to address different facets of the divide. For example, E2D created a computer refurbishing program for Charlotte students without computers that hires and trains local high school students as employees. Other partners in CDIA assisted with their expansion, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools allowing E2D to set up labs on their campuses. These mutually reinforcing activities reflect the CDIA collective impact model at work.

The Promise

Both Digital Charlotte and the CDIA are recognized as leaders in the nation for this work and can inform efforts in other communities. CDIA’s goal of digital inclusion touches on themes of racial, age, socioeconomic, and educational equity. Bruce Clark, the executive director of Digital Charlotte, says it can have a profound positive effect on individuals and families. “No child should have to go to the public library or buy a Coca-Cola at a restaurant in order to do their homework,” he says in an interview. Affordable internet access in the home and having a computer, rather than just a smartphone, are some of the key metrics by which the CDIA is measuring, and reducing, the digital divide in Charlotte.

Systemically, with increased broadband access comes better infrastructure, business productivity, and household income, all of which contribute to overall community wellbeing. Construction of broadband infrastructure creates jobs, reduces the cost of goods and services, and increases commerce opportunities in low-income areas. Digital literacy also contributes to educational and professional development, particularly for children growing up in the digital age who need certain skills in order to succeed academically and in the workforce. It also allows residents to become more involved in their communities – accessing public service websites and public safety alerts, getting to know their neighbors through online social media platforms, and staying up to date on local issues through online media. Although the programs may be unique to each community or demographic, like the diverse programs created by the CDIA, their goal is the same – to make communities more equitable, prosperous, and connected in the 21st century.

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