Connected WA -- Digital Equity
Dear Governor Inslee,
We appreciate the hard work you have done to address the unprecedented public health and economic crisis that we face as a state. We are encouraged by the thoughtfulness you and the state agencies continue to provide in determining how Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and private philanthropy funds are spent to keep all Washingtonians safe, healthy and on a road to recovery.
To that end, as you make decisions regarding how to spend the remaining coronavirus relief funds, we the undersigned urge you to consider funding for broadband and high-speed internet projects like the one highlighted below.
Older Washingtonians, students in the K-12 public system, and their families are being particularly hard-hit by both the health and financial impacts of this pandemic. From students and families that have had NO educational services since March 15th, 2020, to teachers whom have had to pivot to a brand new learning and teaching system, to nursing home deaths and isolation, the exclusive use of internet based technology to meet healthcare needs, rental, utility, and mortgage assistance, Washington residents and their families require additional supports.
Ubiquitous, affordable, and reliable high-speed internet access can benefit all segments of our population and our communities, including local businesses, farmers, families, and marginalized communities. At a time when an increasing number of workers are engaging in telework, students are utilizing remote learning, and small businesses are seeking to remain operational through remote delivery or to-go sales, access to robust telecommunications and high-speed internet networks is critical.
Non-profits, community-based organizations, and social service organizations have found themselves in the unenviable position of either having to lay off staff and eliminating services or transition from mission aligned work to COVID-related response to ensure our communities survived. For the members of our communities, access to broadband makes Stay Home Stay Healthy possible and provides access to telehealth, civic engagement, social connection to friends and family, entertainment, educational opportunities, and access to vital safety net programs.
According to FutureReady.Org, 16% of households in WA State are without access to high speed internet access. That is 280,297 STUDENTS.
Of those without internet, 26% are black households in WA State. That means that 25,719 BLACK students do not have quality access.
Thirty-two percent (32%) of Latinx households are without access -- NOT including migrant and undocumented families -- therefore, 98,368 Latinx students don't have access.
Access to high speed internet is not only a rural issue, although that is one of the biases we all have about access. In South King County, a large percentage of homes either had to pay thousands of dollars to get Comcast to the front door, or have to go through satellite, hot spot, or mobile connections.
So what do we do about this?
A good foundation is in place. With the passage of Second Substitute Senate Bill 5511 in 2019, the Washington State Broadband Office was created. Recently Rep. Gregerson has been leading a coalition of more than three dozen organizations representing a cross section of government agencies, academia, private companies and non-profits to support the expansion of broadband to address increased disparities experienced during the COVID-19 crisis. A smaller core team has been working on mapping the state and developing a plan to serve underserved communities across the state.
Connect Washington Coalition is proposing a multi-pronged approach that addresses the three foundations of digital equity - (1) Lack of affordable and adequate internet access, (2) lack of hardware (laptops, modem, hotspot), and (3) digital literacy - while centering low-income communities, students, families whose dominant language is not English, elders, communities of color, residents who need assistive technology, and others who are most affected by the digital inequities.
The proposals intends to target:
• Kids and families who cannot access public education;
• Elders and seniors who cannot access tele-health and tele-mental health services;
• Underemployed individuals impacted by COVID-19 who cannot access essential services and job training.
In this, we are working towards digital inclusion.
Digital inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes five elements:
• affordable, robust broadband internet service;
• internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user;
• access to digital literacy training;
• quality technical support; and
• applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.
Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances and requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional, and structural barriers to access and use technology.
• Free or subsidized broadband plans,
• Donated free or refurbished devices,
• Technology basics training including curriculum for first time technology users,
• Collaborations with existing partner organizations such as community colleges, libraries, culturally and ethnically anchored community-based organizations, and community centers including senior centers.
Digital Navigators will provide one-to-one tech support and case management-type services to individuals to access health care, employment and education opportunities. This innovative support infrastructure, in response to COVID, is currently used in Ohio, Utah and the Appalachia region.
Digital Navigators will be able to connect people to the internet through three key channels:
1) Connecting people to existing opportunities (ex. how to sign up for low-income program Internet Essentials, how to access refurbished computers donated by a local technology company);
2) Directly provide people who are farthest from digital equity and are not able to afford or access existing programs with wifi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and other device; and
3) Administer basic digital skills support. (ex. helping connect a computer to wifi, assisting people in signing up for unemployment online).
Digital Literacy is the process through which elders, seniors, students, and family members become knowledgeable about basic technology – how to turn a laptop on, how to connect to the internet, basic troubleshooting, surfing the web, and connecting to websites like WA Employment Services Dept, housing, school district food distribution sites, and rent payment portals. We propose:
1. Creating videos, in up to 85 different languages including ASL, as an educational tool to the basics of technology. This video would be easily accessible via smart phone and would be directly downloaded onto the family’s laptops.
2. Inter-generational education will allow us to teach our students the basics of tech support so that they, in turn, can educate the elders, seniors, and extended family that they live with.
Workforce Development will be essential as we work towards creating an entry level tech support call center for our families, students, elders, and seniors to reach out to that can help walk them through some of the basic issues of using a laptop, connecting to the internet, etc. Our plan for the call center is to hire multi-lingual staff, from the communities we aim to serve, who will – concurrently – be in a certification process through one of the local community colleges.
Our plan is attached.
We the undersigned strongly urge you to consider these recommendations regarding the allocation of Washington State’s relief funds.
We look forward to working with you in shaping a fair and visionary broadband future for Washingtonians of all ages and incomes.