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April 17, 2023

Now is the Time to Build Digital Equity Strategies for Our Communities

The Biden administration’s proposed budget presents a continued opportunity to build digital equity nationwide. As cities and states continue to develop broadband infrastructure, we must think big and put forward strategies and plans to maximize digital equity for our communities. We know the communities and cities left behind need digital equity strategies the most. And there’s an abundance of funding and support right now to make it happen. 

The President’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 includes billions of dollars to invest in workforce development, technology, and innovation, with the long-term goal of stimulating our economy and creating jobs in an equitable, sustainable, and representative way. We believe this budget philosophy provides the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the historic and already approved $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

Achieving digital equity means investing in systemic elements that help communities thrive. It’s not just about ensuring internet access. It entails promoting digital literacy and programs in partnership with educational institutions that enable people who are underrepresented in higher education and tech to develop skills through apprenticeships. It’s modernizing and transitioning into the digital economy our local businesses, governments, schools, and other anchor institutions to create demand for the tech services and skills we’ve trained the community for. It’s revitalizing and building spaces for community and tech ecosystems that house and incubate growth. This is the only way to empower communities in the long term to thrive. 

We’ve seen firsthand how this can work. Through our work at our headquarters in Fresno, California, we’ve created over 15,000 jobs, accounting for over a quarter of a billion dollars in aggregated wages. These jobs and salaries are going to women and people of color. We’ve helped grow the city’s GDP by over one percent yearly. Fresno is the second fastest city in the U.S. to recover from the pandemic. And it’s also one of the top ten cities for entrepreneurs of color. Coincidence? We think not. 

Ours is a successful model that helps cities strengthen digital infrastructure while upskilling populations left out of economic mobility. As a tech company, we’re building tech economies in underestimated cities. Our paid apprenticeship program empowers communities by teaching them tech skills via public-private partnerships. We hire a number of our apprentices, meaning our tech professionals come from and look like the communities we serve. Their abilities and backgrounds create more innovative and inclusive tech products for our clients, which include governments, schools, small businesses, and nonprofits. We help create demand for our tech talent through our tech services and initiatives like our Digital Empowerment Center in partnership with the city of Fresno. This program, made possible by American Rescue Plan dollars, enables us to provide local businesses with free trainings on digital literacy, specialized tech tools, and skills necessary to succeed in the digital economy. Our approach is a successful model of how communities can maximize historic federal investments to advance digital equity and revitalize underestimated economies. 

Nationwide we’ve upskilled and trained thousands from underestimated communities who otherwise might not have considered the tech industry as a place for them. Eighty percent of our alums end up in a tech job, with the average person tripling their annual income from $21,500 to $62,700. We’ve renovated over one million square feet in previously vacant, blighted spaces within underserved downtown areas across the country, creating vibrant spaces for innovation and commerce. We’ve raised over $100 million to support this critical work, expanded our model to serve ten cities, and built a diverse and representative tech apprenticeship engine to drive national jobs and economic recovery. 

We’re thrilled that the federal government is committed to funding digital equity for communities. But focusing on internet access is not enough. While necessary to advance, it is only a small piece to successfully launching and strengthening digital economies. Digital literacy, workforce training, and fostering entrepreneurship through cross-sector partnerships are essential. Cities and states can leverage federal investments to embed more permanent, codified approaches to create and infuse digital equity in our communities. Cities and states can and must strategically maximize historic funding for long-term economic growth. 

Laura Maristany is Vice President for External Affairs at Bitwise Industries.