Wham! Connected Nation’s greatest hits of 2020

By Jessica Denson, Communications Director
Connected Nation

Bowling Green, KY (December 14, 2020) – Every year, during the holidays, my friends circulate this ridiculous challenge — try not to be “Whammed!”

Basically, the person who goes the longest without hearing the original version of “Last Christmas” by Wham! wins. We’re not the only ones. The challenge is so popular that it has been dubbed “Whamageddon” and even has this website listing the “official” rules.

It’s not much of a stretch to make comparisons to that song and 2020. Does anyone else feel like they got “Whammed!” by the year? “Next year, to save me from tears …” Well, you know the rest. Just insert some new lyrics, courtesy of 2020, about what you’d do differently in 2021.

The year has been tiring, taxing, and just overall terrible for a lot of people. For those of us at Connected Nation, the struggles people faced in 2020 reinforced our commitment to our mission and to you to expand broadband (high-speed internet) and its related technologies to all people.

As the country experienced rolling lockdowns, kids grappled with online learning, parents were challenged with telework, senior citizens struggled to reach their doctors through telehealth, businesses labored to access customers, and the list goes on and on. This year has jolted the nation see just how important internet access is to the vitality of American families and communities — something that was previously often overlooked.

Even before the pandemic, too many people were left out of a digital world — 18.3 million Americans did not have access to broadband, 45% of those without access were in low-income families, 22% lived in rural areas, and 12 million were school-aged children, leading to what was dubbed the “homework gap.”

Connected Nation has been working on this issue for nearly two decades, but 2020 gave all of us here a renewed sense of urgency to do more, work harder, and find ways to help both immediately and long term.

We took bold steps to help students, teachers, and school districts. We launched Connect K-12, a free resource for state and school district leaders that’s focused on improving school internet networks, and we teamed up with AT&T to handle applications from schools and nonprofits for the K-12 connected learning program, which provides free internet services and more for at-risk students so they can participate in classes. (The application window is open until January 11, 2021, so share this with your school or a local nonprofit.)

From teleheatlh access to remote learning, the above represents many of the issues that Connected Nation’s staff is working hard to improve across the U.S.

Connected Nation also continued its partnership with the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) for the third iteration of the statewide Utah School Technology Inventory. Since 2015, we have tracked how technology is used in Utah’s school districts and charter schools and the access teachers and students have to digital materials, devices, and platforms.

“The data, focused on digital teaching and learning resources, inform decision-makers of the current state of instructional technology in the classroom and helps identify future teacher and student needs,” said Ray Timothy, CEO, UETN, when the report was released earlier this year. “Furthermore, this report allows Utah’s leaders to track changes in the technologies required for teaching and learning and to proactively recognize issues that affect teachers and students.”

Those words proved somewhat prophetic as 2020 unfolded and more students and teachers needed broadband access.

Although education was a big part of our work, Connected Nation’s staff remained focused on tackling all aspects of the Digital Divide.

For example, our work to create a broadband grant program in Michigan resulted in the legislature appropriating an additional $14 million for broadband in the state. At the same time, Connected Nation Texas helped shape the Governor’s Broadband Development Council’s recommendations for broadband expansion across the state and worked at the community level to launch the development of Technology Action Plans in a dozen counties.

Connected Nation’s Chairman & CEO, Tom Ferree, served on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The committee’s mission was focused on developing recommendations on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet access. Ferree was asked to lead the working group focused on helping low-income communities as its chair.

“Connected Nation is very grateful for the opportunity to serve,” Ferree said. “When I think of how the work has been divvied up among all the groups in this committee, I can’t think of a better home for Connected Nation to express its mission and to contribute to the work than by helping to reach low-income communities.”

The working group provided recommendations to the FCC in late November on new ways to encourage deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure and service to low-income communities. Simultaneously, Connected Nation’s Director of Digital Inclusion, Heather Gate, served a second term as the Vice Chair the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE). The committee facilitated various workshops and symposiums throughout the year designed to bring together stakeholders to exchange ideas and develop recommendations to the commission on digital inclusion and media empowerment.

Connected Nation also influenced and helped shape federal legislation including the Broadband DATA Act which seeks to improve current broadband coverage maps and was signed into law in March 2020. It is awaiting appropriate funding to be enacted.

The nonprofit released its first telehealth study entitled Healthcare from Anywhere: Telehealth Use and Perceptions in Rural Michigan in February 2020.  This report identified the barriers to accessing this technology and recommendations or addressing those obstacles.

As COVID-19 led to massive surges in telehealth usage, Connected Nation’s staff responded by working to help people understand how to use telehealth—both by providing free resources and hosting a series of webinars with industry insiders to help identify emerging trends and facilitate conversations.  

In addition, at a time when many were struggling with employment, Connected Nation’s Digital Works program launched a new, more user-friendly website to make navigating its classes easier and went completely virtual so that the telework training and job placement assistance program could be leveraged even as families were told to stay home.

Even before COVID-19 closures, the choice was made to focus on helping populations that traditionally face the highest rates of unemployment — military spouses and veterans — and a new facility was opened in February 2020 across from Fort Campbell in Kentucky. In the months that followed, Digital Works staff moved from in-class training to virtual and continued to help find online positions for its graduates and this August the program hit its 1,000th job placement — in the midst of the pandemic.

“As we celebrate 1,000 jobs created, we’re confident that with the right partners and participants, we can match talent with the opportunity to create another 1,000 or even 10,000 new jobs,” said Bernie Bogle, CFO, Connected Nation, during the virtual celebration of the major milestone. “I’d like to invite others to join us in expanding the Digital Works program and expanding remote job opportunities to more people, particularly now due to COVID-19, as people need viable remote job options more than ever.”

Since August, Digital Works has surpassed that 1,000th job placement mark, was honored by the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) which recognizes the world’s best economic development programs and partnerships, and was awarded a new project in New Zealand — taking Digital Works international.

Our Geographic Information System (GIS) staff and telecommunications team have also tackled something that you may not realize impacts YOUR internet access: maps. Let me explain.

The FCC’s current broadband coverage maps use census block data to show where access is and is not. These maps are often used for determining who gets funding — and who does not — for expanding internet access. The problem is if one or two homes are shown to have coverage in a census block the entire block is marked as “covered.”

Now that you know that I’m sure you can see why we regularly get messages from consumers saying “the maps show I have high-speed internet service, but I don’t. Please help!”

For that reason, Connected Nation has been working and advocating for improved broadband maps that are more accurate and granular. In essence, maps that truly demonstrate where gaps in coverage exist.

As part of that work, our GIS staff has developed new static and interactive mapping products in a multitude of states this year, including Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio, serving as a critical resource to understand the broadband landscape, make decisions, and assist in closing the Digital Divide.

In addition, the team has provided grant program assistance in multiple states; provided local level field validation, asset inventory, and outside plant audits across the country; and created interactive map server upgrades in infrastructure and software to provide better tools for broadband location intelligence.

Also, not to brag, but our Vice President of GIS Services, Ashley Hitt, was honored this year with URISA’s Service Award, provides training for other GIS professionals during conferences, and understands better than almost anyone else in the country how mapping impacts the Digital Divide.

“GIS and location intelligence can provide key information for fashioning new solutions,” Hitt wrote in this article published by Esri.  “It can be leveraged to identify unserved and underserved locations, map broadband service areas, evaluate broadband assets and infrastructure, and provide data visualization applications to policy makers and grant-making agencies that can help enable funding for areas that need the most help getting connected.”

If all of that is not enough, the nonprofit also helped influence the FCC’s rulemakings on broadband mapping and was cited by name multiple times within the FCC’s orders.

And, when the pandemic hit the country hard in early March, Connected Nation’s staff rallied to create a series of free resources for individuals, communities, and states. These included, among others, resources for low-cost or free internet services and devices, tips for improving at-home internet access without paying more, and State Connectivity and Community Connectivity COVID-19 Response Plans to help leaders tackle the sudden and urgent need for expanded high-speed internet access.

I know 2020 has not been easy for anyone, but for those who did not or still do not have internet access, the challenges are ten-fold. We all got “Whammed!” by a year that unexpectedly forced us inside and online, so next year let’s get everyone connected.

Happy holidays from our Connected Nation family to yours!

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About the author: Jessica Denson is the Communications Director for Connected Nation. She has more than 25 years of experience in broadcast journalism and communications / public relations. In her current role, Jessica is responsible for overall brand strategy, which includes building program recognition through digital communications, media relations, and marketing opportunities.

For more information, please email info@connectednation.hatfield.marketing or jdenson@connectednation.hatfield.marketing, and visit https://connectednation.hatfield.marketing/.

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