The National Science Foundation will fund an initiative to develop five proof-of-concept internet connectivity projects over the next year, informing federal researchers on how to approach the construction of a national broadband strategy.
The initiative, called Project OVERCOME, or cOnnectiVity for undERserved COMmunitiEs, was announced on Monday by US Ignite, an NSF-led technology nonprofit that received nearly $2 million for the work. Teams will seek ways to use innovative technologies, like mesh networks that rely on interconnected devices and nodes, and new deployment models to create new connectivity in underserved areas. Throughout the process, US Ignite says it will record data about the success and scale of each project and post it on US-ignite.org, with plans to analyze the data for larger strategic initiatives in the future, including to help state and local technologists and policymakers expand access in their own communities.
The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide across the country by forcing people to rely on their home internet connections for work, school and health care, prompting agencies in New York City, Philadelphia, Sacramento and many other cities to partner with their local internet providers or crowdsource ideas for expanding access quickly. Project OVERCOME is designed with that urgency in mind, US Ignite’s Lee Davenport said in a press release.
“Because large-scale efforts to expand broadband access can take years to complete, we’ve designed this project to take advantage of innovative approaches that connect people quickly, and that have the potential to be scaled out to other communities nationwide,” Davenport said.
Starting next month, teams of academics, students, public officials, professionals and community members can begin applying to participate. US Ignite plans to award five winning teams portions of $1.5 million to fund their projects. The group plans to announce the winning teams next spring and help them implement their projects, purchasing equipment and developing outreach plans to integrate the projects with community networks.
“The pandemic has exposed both the need and a growing motivation to close the digital divide,” NSF program director Deep Medhi said in the announcement. “Combined with the availability of new and innovative network access technologies, those factors give us a real opportunity to explore new possibilities with broadband, and to do so in the communities where connectivity is needed most.”