DeKalb County, Ga., has taken numerous steps during the pandemic to try and close the digital divide for county residents. 

Mar 29 2021

Q&A: How DeKalb County Is Trying to Bridge the Digital Divide

John Matelski, CIO of the Georgia county, explains how local government is forging partnerships to get more residents online amid the pandemic.

In DeKalb County, Ga., as elsewhere across the nation, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for more robust broadband connectivity for both citizens and county employees.

DeKalb County Chief Innovation Officer and CIO John Matelski has helped to lead the response. His department collaborated with telecommunications carriers and the vendor community to expand broadband availability. At the same time, Matelski has been an active voice on the national stage, working with the National Association of Counties to advocate for greater connectivity.

Matelski spoke to StateTech about his county’s pandemic response and about big-picture efforts to close the digital divide.

STATETECH: How has the countywide need for broadband changed during the pandemic?

Matelski: The COVID-19 pandemic has driven most essential services and engagement activities to an online format.

All learning, services, commerce and daily interactions online require a high-speed connection, and thus the pandemic has intensified the need for more aggressive expansion of broadband, especially to unserved and underserved communities.

According to United States census data based on July 2019 estimates, 15 percent of households in DeKalb County have no broadband at all. With a population of approximately 760,000, that translates to about 114,000 citizens without broadband access.

STATETECH: What is your office’s role in addressing that need?

Matelski: The DeKalb County Department of Innovation & Technology has played a key role in leading and coordinating all of the technological enhancements and modernizations that were required to enable all county employees with computers to be able to work from home, or any remote location.

This has enabled all county departments and constitutional agencies to continue providing critical and essential services to our citizens and constituents, without the need to engage and interact in person.

The DoIT has also worked with county departments and agencies to ensure that business processes and citizen/constituent engagement models were re-engineered to accommodate virtual delivery of services, with the knowledge that when we turn the corner on this pandemic, we are well positioned for a more hybrid delivery of services with both online and in-person engagement opportunities.

EXPLORE: How are cities forging partnerships to close the digital divide?

STATETECH: What are some specific efforts or initiatives you have put in place to expand connectivity?

Matelski: Focusing first on county employees: All finance, payroll, purchasing, human resources and information technology operations were enabled for remote telework productivity within the first month of the pandemic. The county rapidly moved all but the 911 call center operation to remote and/or hybrid environments.

As it relates to expanding services directly to citizens and constituents, DeKalb County has collaborated in partnership with WorkSource DeKalbDeKalb County School District and Georgia Piedmont Technical College to provide laptops and hotspots to students through the DeKalb Virtual Career Academy.

The DeKalb County Library system offers hotspots for checkout. It has expanded Wi-Fi coverage outside of its facilities using Cisco Meraki equipment and offers Chromebooks for 24-hour checkout.

The DeKalb County Human Services department has also developed a loaner program for families in need, who may borrow a loaner Chromebook in order to take advantage of the Virtual Village platform, which provides information, classes and activities to parents and youth from birth through 18 years of age.

STATETECH: To what extent have you collaborated with commercial carriers on broadband issues?

Matelski: DeKalb County continues to partner with many of the commercial carriers to provide broadband services, including those who offer wired and/or mobile services. Specifically, we partnered with Verizon, Sprint/T-Mobile, and AT&T Wireless to obtain hotspots at no cost — just paying monthly service — for employees, as well as for disadvantaged or underserved students and seniors.

These partnerships have helped facilitate expansion of broadband capabilities, at reduced cost to the county and at no cost to the end user. They allow for quick turnaround on technology acquisition as new or revised business needs dictate.

EXPLORE: How have vendors stepped up to help municipalities close the digital divide?

STATETECH: Likewise, what support, if any, have you sought from outside vendors?

Matelski: DeKalb County has partnered with numerous outside vendors to complement or supplement services that we provide. We have partnered with numerous technology vendors to help facilitate timely acquisition of technology solutions to help narrow the digital divide/equity gap as we digitally transform services to address the pandemic and the evolving new norm, which will likely be a hybrid model of virtual and in-person engagement.

CDW•G has been a critical business partner, enabling DeKalb County to facilitate time-sensitive acquisitions of tablets, printers, headsets and other various peripherals and hardware to ensure that DeKalb County employees were able to successfully transition to remote telework scenarios. And of course, we cannot forget all of the IT security solution vendors who are knocking on all doors to ensure that the solutions and services being provided are done so in a secure fashion.

STATETECH: Your county’s strategic plan for 2020-2022 calls for investment in broadband “to meet the dynamic needs of county departments/agencies.” How will that be accomplished?

Matelski: DeKalb County had been working on an initiative to expand county network bandwidth even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic, DeKalb County has upgraded and modernized its network components, including Juniper network switches, Palo Alto Networks firewalls and F5 load balancers.

The county has also built in redundancy and failover by having internet traffic traversing across two providers, AT&T and Comcast. Traffic is distributed across both paths as needed, but if one of the services were to go down, the other vendor path can handle all county-related network traffic.

This helps ensure that county employees can continue to provide services through remote/virtual means, and that the county can continue to engage with its citizens and constituents, providing transparent and world-class delivery of services.

STATETECH: What are some of the challenges that arise in trying to expand broadband availability?

Matelski: There are many challenges that arise when trying to expand broadband availability, most of which are out of the control of any single government entity. These include the evolving federal policy landscape, which is all too often politicized.

There are also state-imposed policies and pre-emption; local regulations, policies, and procedures; and geographical and topology challenges related to broadband deployment choices — cellular vs. fiber vs. satellite vs. emerging technologies.

John Matelski, CIO, DeKalb County, Ga.
As the school system has moved to remote learning, the realities of the digital divide have become that much more evident.”

John Matelski CIO, DeKalb County, Ga.

We also see varying adoption rates with accessibility, affordability and bandwidth for residential versus commercial use.

These challenges can be overcome through strong leadership and engagement at the county, regional and national levels. It requires cross-jurisdictional collaboration and public/private partnerships, as well as the development of policies to address digital equity and divide issues across urban, suburban, rural and tribal requirements. Broadband surveys and feasibility analytics also play a role.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How are cities and counties helping school districts get students online?

STATETECH: Can you give an example of cross-jurisdictional collaboration on efforts to address the digital divide?

Matelski: Perhaps the best example of collaboration between agencies is the partnership that the DeKalb County government has with the DeKalb County School District. Though the school system is run by a separate governing body (the DeKalb County Board of Education), the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners and the DeKalb County Administration Office work closely together as they govern on behalf of the same citizens and constituents.

As the school system has moved to remote learning, the realities of the digital divide have become that much more evident. To help bridge the digital divide and provide students with access to education, the Georgia Department of Education awarded the DeKalb County School District a $3.8 million grant and applied it to 25 schools across the district, based on a technology needs survey and evidence-based research.

Identified schools received grant funds to purchase Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots and instructional software programs and training. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic school closures, the school district has shifted to digital learning to ensure the safety of students and staff. This grant has helped ensure the continuity of learning during this pandemic period and will continue to provide value when students return to the classroom.

DeKalb County government was the recipient of $125 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act relief funds, and has a mission to develop, implement and administer a comprehensive, countywide COVID-19 emergency response strategy. This strategy has included investing over $4 million of these funds toward technology initiatives that enhance delivery of services, create greater transparency, lessen the digital divide and expand citizen engagement capabilities through remote means.

EXPLORE: How governments and schools are partnering on closing the digital divide.

STATETECH: You serve on the National Association of Counties’ Broadband Task Force. Any key takeaways from that experience?

Matelski: DeKalb County has taken a significant leadership role with NACo. Not only has District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson served NACo since 2005, including serving now as first vice president, I am honored to serve as vice chair of the NACo Information Technology Standing Committee, as well as participating on the NACo Broadband Task Force and two related subcommittees.

As I noted earlier, this issue requires broad collaboration across all levels of government, with active engagement from other public and private sector organizations. DeKalb County is working diligently to reshape the evolving broadband footprint for DeKalb County employees, citizens, and constituents and also providing thought leadership and guidance at the state, regional and national levels.

STATETECH: What’s next on the county’s broadband agenda?

Matelski: It has become clear that being able to maintain real-time communications during a national emergency is critical, and that high-speed connectivity is the key to success. Long before COVID-19 introduced itself, federal, state and local governments struggled with how to get high-speed connectivity to every community.

DeKalb’s goals are in alignment with the National Broadband Plan, released in 2010, which outlined with the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan’s goal to make high-speed connectivity ubiquitous. It cited broadband as essential infrastructure for economic growth, education, health care and more. Ten years later, we are a country of over 330 million people, and research estimates indicate that over 100 million Americans still do not have access to or cannot afford the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is a minimum of 25-megabits-per-second download and 3Mbps upload speeds.

Work must continue on getting broadband to every community — including tribal lands, rural areas and overlooked urban communities. By working together with employees, residents and all stakeholders, DeKalb County will continue to be at the forefront of that charge.

Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons