Susan Corbett and the National Digital Equity Center
According to Plato, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the Downeast town of Jonesport, Susan Corbett has taken this saying as her personal mantra and helped thousands of Mainers throughout Washington County and elsewhere enjoy the power of the Internet and the computer.
Susan, 66, now serves as the director of the National Digital Equity Center, which has offices in Machias and Wiscasset. The non-profit group’s mission is to bridge the digital divide so thousands more Mainers, especially those who are age 50 and older, can benefit from technology.
“I have been a very big promoter for digital equity and digital inclusion for Maine and its residents for a long time,” Susan said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across Maine and the rest of the country this spring, Susan knew her organization’s goal would become even more paramount. “It is sort of the moment where you have a little tongue–in–cheek [attitude] and say, well, this is what we’ve been talking about for some time.”
The stay–at–home orders that accompanied the pandemic in late March presented several challenges. Schoolchildren may not have access to broadband and proper equipment to do distance learning. People in the workforce may never have had to use technology to do their jobs. And employers may not have known how to manage a telecommuting workforce.
Susan points out that those who are well–versed on the Internet, Smartphones, laptops, Zoom, and all things telecommunications have been able to work from home, order what they need online, use Telehealth to consult with their doctors and navigate the pandemic. Those who lack those skills, access to broadband, and the proper equipment have been left behind and feel even more cut off from family and friends.
Almost immediately, Susan’s staff of instructors went to work educating and training as many people as they could online. In May, Susan said her instructors conducted over 170 classes. All of the center’s classes are free, and people can take as many as they want. Before the pandemic, Susan’s instructors conducted their classes at public libraries, community centers, and other public spaces. Technology enables them to reach Mainers statewide from Kittery to Madawaska.
“Even when we get back in the field, those online classes will continue,” she added.
The classes range from utilizing everyday workplace software such as Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheets to using Zoom to do video conferencing. Instructors are available to teach Quickbooks and the Social Media basics of Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram. Helping older adults who just need to be connected to their loved ones is very important for Susan.
Even before the pandemic arrived, the center made it a priority to encourage Maine seniors to learn Internet basics like Facebook, email, and Internet security to avoid Internet fraud. “The earlier we can do that in the aging process, the better,” Susan observes.
Members of her family have benefited from this instruction. Susan said her 98-year-old aunt learned how to use Facebook and email when she was in her 70s, and today her aunt can use Face time to read her great-granddaughter at night.
Susan’s dad, who is 92, also learned how to use the Internet when he was younger, and Susan believes he benefited greatly. She recently gave him an iPad, and her father said it was the best gift he ever got. Her father enjoys reading several newspapers online, playing games, and doing Face time with Susan. “As he’s gotten older, technology has helped him fill up his days and stay connected with people.”
Susan understands it isn’t always easy to get older people to learn technology. The key is to figure out what the carrot is for them to get them to agree. When her father realized he could read several newspapers online, he was more receptive, she said.
For folks in the workplace, learning new skills is a matter of necessity, Susan said. Finding ways to increase rural Mainers’ access to broadband and digital technology has driven Susan since she first moved to Maine in 1996. Susan grew up in Melrose, Massachusetts, and worked as a medical assistant 25 years in the Greater Boston area.
She created a medical billing company and bought a cottage in Jonesport. She soon realized that if she wanted to base her business in Washington County, she would need stronger connectivity to serve her clients. When she reached out to Verizon, the telecommunications company told her it just didn’t exist in Downeast Maine. Undaunted, Susan reached out to some local technicians who helped her establish a wireless broadband connection for her business. “It just took off from there.”
Eventually, she joined Axiom Technologies in Machias as the chief financial officer in 2005, and in 2007 she bought the company. For the next 10 years, Susan accessed federal and state grants and utilized partnerships to create more than 100 broadband access points in rural Maine counties, over a space of 2,500 square miles. In 2014, Susan formed the Axiom Education and Training Center and served as a consultant.
When Susan stepped down as the CEO of Axiom Technologies in 2017, her former partner Mark Ouellette took over the reins, and her former company continues to create greater broadband connectivity across rural Maine’s northern counties. Susan launched the National Digital Equity Center in 2017 and became its director. She focused her energies on educating Maine residents and communities about the importance of having adequate technology. The pandemic has greatly helped her cause.
She describes the work performed by Axiom Technologies as the “how do we connect to Mom and how do we get the carrot to make her connect?” The National Digital Equity Center helps people understand that technology is really a necessity. “We are the why,” Susan explained.
Most people who are under 40 were taught technology skills in school. Those over 40 had to learn how to use technology on their own, Susan said. “Anyone 40 and older needs to feel really, really proud they have been able to navigate and learn technology.”
The center’s instructors take a patient and understanding approach, recognizing that students learn technology skills at different paces, Susan said. Her group has also launched a public awareness campaign across Maine to reach more people in need of their services. The demand for the center’s services will only grow.
Susan said they will use additional federal and state grants to hire more instructors and create more tablet hotspot addresses to increase broadband access. The center’s main focus is to ensure access to affordable broadband, equipment, training, and digital literacy.
Susan, who is also affectionately known as “the Goddess of the Internet” in Washington County, is optimistic the center will move closer to achieving its mission to bridge the digital divide in Maine.
“This is the final chapter of my career, and this is my passion.”