Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Susan Corbett Discusses Digital Equity in Maine and Nationally on Episode 5 of the Building for Digital Equity Podcast
Susan Corbett is the Executive Director of the National Digital Equity Center and has long been involved in policy around Internet access and digital equity both in Maine and across the United States. Susan and I chatted at Net Inclusion about how she got going in this space in 2005 as the owner of a small ISP in rural Maine.
We also discuss how they use a database and surveys to track the progress of their programs to ensure they are effective. They've worked on distributed devices, skill building, and more and are now involved with the Maine Digital Equity Plan.
Finally, we discuss some of the changes that Susan has seen over the years.
This show is 14 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.
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Sean Gonsalves (00:06):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzales, talking to people at the events we are attending, to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now let's see who we have today.
Christopher Mitchell (01:05):
I'm here with Susan Corbett, the National Digital Equity Center Executive Director. Welcome to the show.
Susan Corbett (01:11):
Well, thank you for having me, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.
Christopher Mitchell (01:14):
And you've come in with one of my favorite accents coming in from Maine.
Susan Corbett (01:17):
I am coming in from the great state of Maine.
Christopher Mitchell (01:20):
So let's just get started with a second. If your name is not recognized by the person listening to this show you've been missing out because you've been around for a while doing important work for a long time. Just give us a thumbnail sketch of it.
Susan Corbett (01:32):
So, I stepped into this space in 2005 when I was the owner of a small I S P in rural Maine, and we had a big focus on what is now called Digital Equity and Digital Inclusion. Those were not in our vocabulary back in that time. So we have focused a lot on digital skills training connecting the unconnected. And in 2018, I stepped down from that role in that I S P and became the, and founded and the National Digital Equity Center with a goal of closing the digital divide in the, in the state of Maine and around the country. So that has been our work. Is that all our focus?
Christopher Mitchell (02:16):
Is that all? <Laugh>. You don't wanna tackle a small project.
Susan Corbett (02:18):
You don't. You don't. And, you know, we were very, we were very lucky. I, you know, because I had been in this space for a long time, I was able to secure over 5 million in funding to provide free digital skills classes to all main residents to get devices into the hands of the folks that needed them to promote the FCC Affordable Connectivity Program. And while all of that is going on, we're working with communities and writing digital equity and digital inclusion plans.
Christopher Mitchell (02:45):
Now let me ask a quick question cause we're gonna talk more about the, what's going on with the Maine digital equity plan, your role within that. I'm gonna ask you about unanticipated challenges that are sneaking up on you, cuz I think that's really where the interesting stuff is. But when you're doing work with digital equity, how do you evaluate it to make sure, you know, you have $5 million, you got pressure to spend it wisely. How do you know you're doing a good job when you're in the middle of it?
Susan Corbett (03:08):
So we do for every person who comes through our program, they are entered into a very robust database so that we can make sure that we are reaching some of our most vulnerable populations across the state. That's one. Two is that we do post-survey reviews for all of the students who come into any of our digital skills classes to make sure that we're meeting their needs and that the instructors are meeting them where they are.
Christopher Mitchell (03:35):
Excellent. This is, as I've gotten more and doing a little bit of work doing some direct training, I found those surveys are super helpful. And I always tell people like, I'm here to help make things better. Don't sugarcoat it. Tell me what's working. Tell me what isn't working. Tell me what ideas you have to make it better. Yeah.
Susan Corbett (03:53):
So, and what's, what's really challenging in the last few years is we established this organization pre pandemic and that all of our funding was based on a pre pandemic model. And then the pandemic happened and we had to quickly move to an online interactive platform. And that itself was a challenge. I, you know, I had a lot of, of anxiety that we were leaving people behind because the people who showed up in those in-person classes were novice computer uses. They were using technology for the first time. We established a, a device program, affordable device program. We were very fortunate, we got some funding from one of our philanthropy organizations purchased a hundred tablets with cellular connectivity and said, here's 70 and older and you don't have a internet connection or don't have a device. We will give you this for free and we'll teach you how to use it. And the program was wildly successful. These were older adults who had, for the most part had never used technology for the first time. The first tutoring session with a digital skills instructor was over the phone and teaching someone how to turn the device on. And then eventually the end game of that first session was to have the student click on the link for the zoom session, and then they were face-to-face with the instructor for the very first time ever. And it is pure joy when you watch that happen.
Christopher Mitchell (05:13):
That's excellent. Yeah. I just lost my train of thought. <Laugh> the we're gonna talk about the digital equity plan. I was thinking in my head about Maine and all the advantages you have, and you could tell me you still have it hard, but I wanted to give some credit that there's great people who have done great work in Maine. You've got the Maine Broadband Coalition. A A R P has done really important work, I think with the state. You have many local ISPs that are engaged. You now have consolidated the incumbent telephone company is willing to enter into more imaginative partnerships than many other incumbents are. Although some of us still have some hesitations here and there. But you have the Island Institute has done great work. Yes. There's just, there's so many folks that have, that have pulled together in Maine. And so let's just, I just wanna make sure that we, we, we note their contributions.
Susan Corbett (06:08):
Absolutely. All of those organizations have been working hard for many, many years. And in many ways, Maine has been leading away across the United States. But I think it's also important to acknowledge Governor Janet Mills, our governor, who is very, very dedicated to ensuring that all of her, all of our Maine residents are connected, and that they have the digital tools in order to participate in our digital economy. So a lot of of kudos go out to Governor Mills and her administration. We are very, very lucky here in the state of Maine. Yes.
Christopher Mitchell (06:40):
I've seen some great leadership from both Republicans and Democrats in that and the Maine Legislature. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and the current governor, I would say is very <laugh>, very supportive. Governor Mills the the state of Maine is now like all states developing a digital equity plan. What is your role with that?
Susan Corbett (06:56):
So the main connectivity authority, which is our quasi government agency that is handling all of the federal funding coming in for infrastructure also is at the helm of the digital equity plan. So I was hired as the consultant to work with regional and tribal broadband partners. So the state has 13 different regions. Each of those regional and tribal broadband partners have pulled together coalitions mostly representing the covered populations that we need to focus on in this plan. And
Christopher Mitchell (07:29):
That's eight listed groups that are, have been historically left out, have been identified that all states have to make sure they're identifying those covered populations.
Susan Corbett (07:37):
Exactly. And then each of the regional and tribal broadband partners need to look at the barriers to digital inclusion. So what is the barrier to affordable broadband, affordable equipment, digital skills training, public computer access and technical support, and then what are their recommendations? And at the same time, interview lived experts so that we can be sure that we were, we are hearing all voices. Those 13 plans had that, the very aggressive timeline, they have to submit those plans to the Maine Connectivity Authority by the end of April. So we have a lot of work cut out for us in a very short period of time. Those plans will be submitted to the state. The state will then combine those 13 plans along with the work that this, that Maine connectivity is doing, talking to other organizations across the state and individuals so that we can put together a plan that represents all of Maine people and has been created by all of Maine people.
Christopher Mitchell (08:38):
Do you sense that Maine has a divide between some of the population centers and some of the more rural areas in the way we see in some places?
Susan Corbett (08:48):
You know, Maine is a rural state, so you know, when we talk urban, it's sort of with a little bit of humor because we're not anything like, you know, Boston or New York. But there are more, certainly more populated areas. And so I think just making sure that we are addressing all of those covered populations in our more urbanized centers as well as outreaching to the rural areas, which are pretty far, far apart. A county, like Aroostook County is a huge county. You know, it's takes, you know, several hours to drive from one o one side to the other. So making sure that we are hearing all voices across that county is equally as important as interviewing those more populated areas and hearing all of those voices as well.
Christopher Mitchell (09:38):
When you started the National Digital Equity Center, I just wanna make sure I got that right. The National Digital Equity Center, I felt like that time in 2018, that was a time when I feel like we were more in a pickle in that we recognized there was a great need to do more, you know, in Portland, in, in places like Camden, even where people had access to something, but it wasn't getting everyone's needs met. And yet we didn't want to say that there was more important or less important than the rural areas, but there was often a real focus of money in the legislature for the areas where there was no service available. And I just think it's a really exciting time now that we can talk about all of the people that need service.
Susan Corbett (10:20):
Absolutely. You know, I think if you think about your own technology path, you know, mine started in the 1980s, you know, with a computer with a flashing sea on the screen, and it was loaded with dos. And, you know, and here today where, you know, we have, we're we're run by technology, right. Our phones have much, you know, are more robust than those first computers that come out. But if you sort of pause for a minute, there is still a lot of novice computer users who've never used technology that's a 40 year span. And when we think about how we use technology today versus even five years ago, it's a significant change. And so having the resources to teach people how to use that technology and participate in our digital economy is extremely, extremely important.
Christopher Mitchell (11:13):
What has changed at the net inclusion conferences over the years? Like is there a different, aside from the fact that there are way more people here that we don't recognize <laugh>? Yeah. <laugh>, you probably knew a lot of the people face to face years ago. Yeah. what is, what is different now?
Susan Corbett (11:28):
I think that, you know, here at Net inclusion and it certainly in the state, you know, at one point there were just a handful of digital inclusion experts around the country. And now we are growing and growing and growing. You know, when you think of those early net inclusion conferences, those of us that have been in this space since 2016, we served on all the panels. You know, we, we moderated, we presented, and now, you know, when we go in, I go into a room and it's a whole, you know, all new faces. There is a sense of pride that we, we as a digital, a digital inclusion community, right? The whole fields have, have we created that. And that's, you know, the legacy goes on. You know, at sometime I'm go, at some point I'm gonna need to retire. And so, you know, there has to be other people who are doing this work and carrying it forward. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And I think all of us, you know, who've been in this space for a long time are looking at that.
Christopher Mitchell (12:22):
I, I don't want to hear that. I'm still <laugh>, I'm still disappointed that Peggy Schaffer has a life aside from working on broadband. I think y'all, y'all in New England need to keep it up. There's some really great work in a lot of those states, <laugh>. Yes,
Susan Corbett (12:34):
Yes. It's true. It's true. And Peggy did a phenomenal job leading Connect Maine, which brought us right into the main connectivity authority. And so there was a lot of foundation for Maine connectivity to build off of as they launched their program. And it's exciting, you know, in Maine when we were looking at just a small amount of money every year for grants and then to see this, you know, multimillion dollars to close the digital divide, it's exciting time.
Christopher Mitchell (13:05):
And that's, you know, I think that's worth noting cuz Maine stepped up and put some of its own money in some states have never really done that. And so I feel like Maine was more prepared to use this money effectively. Absolutely. Because even though it could not commit a large budget to it, it had committed a budget to, it developed some muscle memory. Mm-Hmm.
Susan Corbett (13:23):
<Affirmative> and, and the Maine Broadband Coalition Connect Maine. And then of course Maine Connectivity Authority have worked with communities to develop, dig their infrastructure plans mm-hmm. <Affirmative> along with a digital equity plans. And so there are a lot of, a lot of small communities that have figured out, okay, here's what we're gonna need to, to connect every single home in our community. That took a lot of time and effort to get for, for communities to take charge of their own destiny. Mm-Hmm.
Christopher Mitchell (13:54):
<Affirmative>. Yeah. Yes. Yeah. Well, it's wonderful catching up with you. Thank you so much for taking the time
Susan Corbett (13:58):
Today. It was my pleasure, Chris, thank you for all you do. Thanks. Thank you.
Sean Gonsalves (14:02):
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