SUCCESS STORIES: The Impact of Digital Navigators on a Community - Network:On

SUCCESS STORIES: The Impact of Digital Navigators on a Community

Published September 26, 2023

Just north of Chicago, Lake County, Illinois has struggled with the digital divide, and for years there have been efforts to get more residents online. An initiative of the Waukegan Community Broadband Task Force, ConnectLakeCounty hit its stride once it began to employ digital navigators to interact directly with community members.

While Lake County is known for its wealthy communities, other parts of Lake County aren’t so well-off, and some residents struggle to pay bills in the expensive area. But ConnectLakeCounty  Executive Director Candace Browdy knows how important home broadband is.

The crux of this digital navigator work is about “educating people,” Browdy told Network:On. In Lake County, “the digital divide is really significant,” and digital navigators are the best way to meet people where they are. “We’re putting boots on the ground,” said Browdy, because “getting information out is going to where people shop, literally handing out flyers.”

ConnectLakeCounty’s Spanish-speaking digital navigators have worked directly with school districts to get their community online. John Price, the superintendent of North Chicago School District 187, told the Chicago Tribune that rather than guide District 187 families to an ISP, the district can pay for each family’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and reach out to them with ConnectLakeCounty’s help.

“The district took over that part,” Price said. “We have people on our staff who ask, ‘Do you have internet? Do you want to have it?’ ConnectLakeCounty helps us make it even better.”

Most of ConnectLakeCounty’s efforts have focused on informing people about the ACP. After bringing on two trusted community messengers as digital navigators, to date they have conducted outreach to 1,000 community residents, and 350 have enrolled in ACP, with another 100 in the process. This high conversion rate speaks to the effectiveness of digital navigators in coaching people to sign up for broadband services.

But, even with this success, “the enrollment numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” explained Browdy. There are thousands of Lake County residents who are eligible for the low-cost internet option.

While it has been difficult for them to educate people about the ACP, the digital navigators of ConnectLakeCounty have made significant inroads into the community.

ConnectLakeCounty works to give people support if they do not understand how to use the internet, because, “if you don’t know how to do that, or this is not an option for you, you are left in the dust,” Browdy explained to the Tribune.

Digital navigators sharing information about the ACP is a proven success model, and ConnectLakeCounty has enabled hundreds of households to access the internet, helping “people build a workable, practical skill level to navigate (the internet) safely, using different applications for things like banking, education, and telehealth,” Browdy said.