By Jigyasa Sharma, Program Manager, US Ignite

The Project OVERCOME initiative led by US Ignite was conceived of and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF Award # CNS-2044448) with additional support from Schmidt Futures.

One of the very first programs I managed upon my arrival at US Ignite in 2021 was Project OVERCOME. We selected six communities to pilot advanced wireless and community broadband adoption programs through a rigorous solicitation and review process. The grant period ended in December 2022, and we heard some remarkable success stories from the OVERCOME communities (read more about these stories in the OVERCOME booklet).  

As communities prepare to manage the unprecedented influx of billions of dollars in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding, I find myself reflecting on the need for more programs like Project OVERCOME to effectively bridge the digital divide in unserved and underserved communities across the US. In this article, I share the Project OVERCOME features that were effective in bridging the digital divide in the participating communities. 

  • Bridging the capacity gap: Small and medium communities are often resource-constrained and have limited administrative and/or technical capacity to run broadband programs. Through Project OVERCOME, US Ignite acted as a lean project management office. We worked closely with teams to enhance and build their technical and management capacity and offered timely assistance to resolve deployment and adoption challenges.

  • Experimental and experiential: We focused on both technology and community experience. At the start of the program, we were aware of the potential challenges and knew that success would look different for each community given the differences in topography, weather, technology type, and community history. We pursued the project in the spirit of experimentation by focusing on maximizing learnings that could be shared widely with communities across the US. We conducted a survey to measure the social impact of Project OVERCOME on participating communities. In addition, we interviewed residents to understand their personal experiences and how they benefited from the program. These insights offered useful lessons for our communities deploying broadband pilots. (Click below to read our whitepaper on survey findings).
  • Diversity & Representation matters: The digital divide is a multifaceted issue. It is not just a technical problem, but also a sociological, economic, and political issue. Project OVERCOME required teams to represent diverse backgrounds and ensure inclusivity in thoughts, actions, and existence. Each team consisted of an engineer, a researcher, a social scientist, a local government representative, and a community organizer. Together, they worked to implement the pilot on the ground. The multidisciplinary nature of the teams ensured the consideration and discussion of different perspectives in the decision-making process.
  • Building partnerships: Robust partnerships are crucial for building a strong foundation for any program. Partnership with local anchor institutions was one of the selection merit criteria for Project OVERCOME applicants. We selected teams that had strong community partnerships and demonstrated their ability to nurture future partnerships. Additionally, we helped communities identify and forge partnerships to ensure the sustainability of their broadband project beyond OVERCOME.
  • Community empowerment: Project OVERCOME was all about the community-first approach. Each team created a shared vision for their community by engaging in several dialogues with community representatives and community members. Since most team members lived in the community where the pilot was deployed, there was a sense of empathy and a real understanding of the challenges that people faced in those communities. Some of my favorite interaction stories involve residents recognizing OVERCOME team members at grocery stores and expressing appreciation for their work.
  • Compassionate leadership: Each OVERCOME team was led by a leader with a track record of serving their community with unwavering determination and compassion. One of my favorite leaders was DigitalC’s former CEO, Dorothy Baunach. I admired her kindness and graceful leadership style every time I was in a meeting with her. Leaders like her understand that we are only better off as a collective if we serve and take care of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Leaders like her make me believe in the promise of a digital future, and that the best way to get there is by working together.
"Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime." Lao Tzo

Programs like Project OVERCOME can address the impending delivery crisis that small and medium communities are likely to face as they compete for BEAD funding. Community leaders should take relevant parts of Project OVERCOME as a template as they continue to innovate on how to close the digital divide. Sooner or later, the BEAD funding will dry out, but its lasting impact will depend on how the funds are used to drive systematic changes in unserved and underserved communities.