Collier resident works toward digital equity

For anyone who tends to take internet connectivity for granted, consider what happened under certain circumstances as Covid-19 forced education into a virtual environment.

“During the pandemic, you heard stories about kids not being able to do their homework and having to go to McDonald’s to get online,” said Alka Patel of Collier. “We realized that this is not acceptable in this day and age. And so we looked at community centers across the country and equipped them with free internet.”

She is vice president of government and foreign affairs for Comcast Corp.’s Keystone multistate region, and the media company responded to the situation by establishing wireless “lift zones”: more than 1,250 across the United States, including 37 in Allegheny County.

Patel’s role is to oversee government relations and community investment in parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia, and a primary focus is the pursuit of digital justice, the opportunity for all to embrace what has become an essential component of life in the 21st century.

With a lack of financial resources often a hindrance, Comcast launched an Internet Essentials program that has brought affordable connectivity to more than 10 million Americans since its inception in 2011.

According to Patel, who gave the example of recent developments in the medical field, the need has become clearer in the meantime.

“If you’re thinking about telemedicine and telehealth, it’s so important for those people to get on the internet so they can access it because a lot of those things are going virtual,” she said. “And maybe they have transportation problems, or they can’t get on a bus because they don’t have childcare at home. So being able to do a health visit for children is really powerful.”

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“Make sure they have access”

Another factor hindering large-scale connectivity is geography, with locations far from metropolitan areas often being challenged.

“We have invested our own private capital in expanding into these areas to ensure they have access,” Patel said. “There’s a lot of effort going on at the federal and state levels to create programs so that these really hard-to-reach places have access. We’re also very involved in keeping that in mind and working with states as they roll out programs.”

At the federal level, Comcast participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers low-income households subsidies for ongoing Internet service.

“Part of the challenge is that people don’t know there are funds for select families,” Patel said. “So one of our biggest efforts is to create awareness and outreach.”

In that regard, consider the Federal Communications Commission’s estimate that as of July, only 13.1 million of the 48 million Americans who qualified for the program had signed up for it.

While connectivity is essential to digital justice, Patel emphasized the critical role of users with optimal knowledge and skills. In 2021, Comcast announced a $1 billion commitment to reach tens of millions of people over the next decade with its Project UP, focused on advancing career opportunities and entrepreneurship.

This year, the company awarded grants through a program called RISE — Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment — which includes $10,000 for each of 100 Pittsburgh-area businesses owned by women and people of color and made up of more than 1,000 received applications were selected.

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“We’re really excited about the interest,” said Patel. “It shows the need in this community to support small businesses. We know that small businesses are at the heart of our communities, so we’re thrilled to be able to help these entrepreneurs with these grants.”

“True Pittsburgh”

A Scott native and graduate of Chartiers Valley High School, she received her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and her law doctorate and master of business administration from Duquesne. She later worked at Carnegie Mellon as the first executive director of the university’s Digital Transformation and Innovation Center, sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional services partnership.

“I met all three major institutions in Pittsburgh,” Patel said. “So, true Pittsburgher!”

To further consolidate this status, she was appointed to the board of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce in the summer.

“The Chamber will provide us with a great platform to really advocate for the need for digital justice and raise awareness of the issue at a regional level,” she said.

Prior to joining Comcast, she was the first person in a second position to lead the responsible AI for the US Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

“I realized that if our communities aren’t connected, I can’t really keep talking about new technologies,” Patel said. “And that’s another reason I joined Comcast.”

As for her primary drive, she wants to help certain demographics stand on an equal footing after traditionally facing less than ideal circumstances.

“That’s exactly why I took this job,” she said. “This job allows me to do my part to break that cycle.”

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Harry Funk is the news editor at Tribune-Review. You can contact Harry at [email protected].