As part of a six-year effort to highlight the benefits of gigabit networks, the Mozilla Foundation today announced that it has awarded the final 14 prizes from its $1.2 million Gigabit Community Fund.

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the Gigabit Community Fund launched in 2012 to provide grants to educational organizations in five U.S. cities with broadband networks that can deliver internet speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; Austin, Texas; Eugene, Oregon; and Lafayette, Louisiana.

Mozilla and the National Science Foundation have provided 94 grants in total to organizations seeking to conduct pilot tests of such technologies as virtual reality, 4K video, and artificial intelligence.

The grants announced today range from $10,000 to $30,000. Projects funded include the Lafayette Gigabot Coding Initiative, which trains Lafayette elementary and middle school teachers on connected robotics and cloud-based programming, and Educational Equity VR, which will use the grant money to conduct unconscious bias training for Eugene teachers using virtual reality.

When Mozilla launched the Gigabit Community Fund six years ago, cities were just starting to look at gigabit networks as something they might want to obtain to attract innovation. Chattanooga had been written up in the New York Times for having the fastest internet service in the U.S with its newly installed municipal broadband network, while Google had just selected Kansas City as the first city for its Google Fiber Network.

“There was a real sense that local solutions and local communities in the U.S. had a lot to offer in terms of tapping into the real original promise of the internet — to make information accessible and open to all,” Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman told VentureBeat in an exclusive phone interview.

In the six years since Mozilla launched the Gigabit Community Fund, some of the communities with a gigabit connection are still waiting for it to deliver on its promise of inclusion and economic growth. But Surman says the program has taught the Mozilla Foundation valuable lessons about what it takes to build digitally inclusive programs.

Bridging the digital divide

Educational organizations aren’t typically the first adopters of new technology. But Surman said that Mozilla wanted the Gigabit Community Fund to target these groups because they typically have deep roots in the community and can reach individuals who don’t typically get first access to new technology or faster broadband speeds, like those low-income neighborhoods.

According to Mozilla’s gigabit program director, Lindsey Frost, the company started by hosting Gigabit 101 workshops to help local nonprofits and other organizations understand what having a faster internet connection might allow them to do.

“We really tried to be the translators between the technologists and the educator community,” Frost told VentureBeat. “They [educators] didn’t want to talk about how cool the technology was but what they could actually do with the project.”

Above: A Latinitas participant.

The fund has also given organizations the chance to learn from other groups in the five chosen cities and share what works and what doesn’t. As a positive example, one recipient of a 2017 Gigabit Community Fund grant, Networking the Classroom of the Future, is a joint project between organizations in Lafayette and Chattanooga. After a Chattanooga organization received a Gigabit Community Fund grant to stream 4K video from the Tennessee Aquarium to use in classrooms at a Chattanooga high school, Lafayette organizations decided to partner with the Chattanooga groups so Lafayette students could watch 4K video from the Tennessee Aquarium and Chattanooga students could watch 4K video from the Louisiana Science Museum.

With check sizes ranging from $3,000 to $31,500, the Gigabit Community Fund grants have had a small but noteworthy impact on each of the five cities. As a key benefit, recipients of the grants have been able to introduce the students they work with to tech they would not otherwise have been exposed to.

Laura Donnelly, founder of an Austin-based nonprofit called Latinitas that teaches Hispanic girls the ropes in media and tech fields like podcasting and video production, said that her organization used a grant from the Gigabit Community Fund to create a virtual reality curriculum. Latinitas then received a second grant from the Gigabit Community Fund in 2017 to give 20 students the opportunity to create short documentaries using 360 storytelling. The girls will unveil their films  — which document “gentrification” in Austin’s Eastside neighborhood — at a film festival later this year.

“The common language around VR is how much empathy it evokes,” Donnelly told VentureBeat. “It’s really putting it in their hands to say, ‘This is what it feels like when you see your grandma is not going to be able to stay in the house you visited when you were a baby’.”

The promise of the gig

The economic impact gig networks have had on the five cities Mozilla has worked with have been mixed. In Chattanooga, the gig network is credited by some with having saved the city from a bleak economic future. In 2015, a professor from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga published a study claiming that the gig network had resulted in the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs over five years.

Meanwhile, in tech entrepreneurs in Kansas City have lamented that the rollout of Google Fiber hasn’t had as noticeable an impact on the startup community as they had hoped.

Additionally, a digital divide still persists in many parts of the cities that Mozilla has worked with. Carl Settles, executive director of Austin nonprofit E4, says that many of the schools E4 works with don’t have a gigabit internet connection. E4 works primarily with youth of color ages 16-22, giving them the chance to explore opportunities in creative industries. The Gigabit Community Fund grant allowed E4 to also develop a VR curriculum for its students.

While many communities no longer see gigabit networks as a “silver bullet” that can jumpstart their economy, the adoption of gigabit networks is only quickening. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, more than 130 communities in the U.S. now have a municipal broadband network offering internet speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second.

Surman said there are no plans to create a new iteration of the Gigabit Community Fund. But Mozilla is doubling down on its efforts to get more people connected to the internet and get gig networks deployed in areas that have traditionally been underserved by internet providers. In 2017, Mozilla and the National Science Foundation launched WINS, which is awarding $2 million in prizes to the technologists who generate the most creative ideas to “connect the unconnected.”

Mozilla is also advocating the creation of a regulatory framework that can make it easier for cities to create their own municipal networks. Three of the five cities participating in the Gigabit Community Fund — Chattanooga, Eugene, and Lafayette — have municipal-owned networks.

“Where there are people who do want gigabit, that do want high speed, and can’t get it — that’s the thing we all have to step up and tackle,” Surman said.