Roadmap to Connecting the Under-Connected

Towns and cities at core of digital inclusion policies and partnerships

By David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager, City of Seattle and Amina Fazlullah, Mozilla Fellow 2018


A dozen chattering four-year-old’s pile into the tech learning lab, scamper for their chairs, and jump into their ABCMouse online learning activities. These future technology leaders don’t need to see the link to city or national policies and programs, but they’re at the front end of digital inclusion policy. They don’t need to see policies or lists of funders that made their learning possible, but it’s just as critical as their internet link.

Because a day in the life is a digital day for most of us, the recognition of persistent gaps has led to growing digital inclusion initiatives in many communities. However, the investments and scope of policy and programs by the public and private sector vary considerably and often aren’t well sustained. More apps or faster broadband offers have not inherently led to greater digital equity. This is an issue we’ve grappled with at the City of Seattle for over 20 years. Seattle has made a long-term commitment to ensure residents can get information online from city government, provide public input, and contribute to their neighborhoods and communities online. In the hopes of increasing digital equity, here are some observations and suggestions for framing, enacting and collectively furthering digital inclusion policy.

Terminology helps frame policy. The term “digital divide” began to describe the state of disadvantages between the “technology “haves” and “have-nots.” “Digital inclusion” came into use as a welcoming term to connote the action taken to close the divide. “Community technology” has also been used to refer to these localized efforts. More recently “digital equity” has been adopted from other equity and justice work to better represent the need to make targeted investments and structural changes to address historical patterns of discrimination and disadvantage. Recognition that it isn’t enough to bring the proverbial internet “pipe” to the town or the door has led to more sophisticated policy framing and to initiatives that encompass both broadband access and “adoption.” This was well articulated in Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010, which discussed broadband in terms of availability as well as adoption and utilization. At the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), a nonprofit that supports affordable home internet access and technology education, we adopted standard definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity to enable a baseline, common understanding that can be used nationally and locally to guide policies and investments.

Another critical choice of terminology and policy is whether investments aim to reach the “unserved,” with no internet access, and/or “underserved,” those who have some access to internet or other technology but are at a disadvantage for their level of technology access and capacity to use it effectively. The term “vulnerable residents” has also been used be recognize those with digital disadvantages. Research is showing that many are “under-connected” with limited Internet service, challenges of affordability, devices that aren’t reliable, and low digital skill levels which impede their availability to learn, earn, engage, and meet basic needs. How carefully the terms are defined and scoped in digital inclusion policy, practice and funding has enormous implications on whether the divide is actually narrowed. Does it apply to that resident or organization or small business across town or across the valley who cannot get internet service, has limited choices for bandwidth and cost, has limited data, can’t afford the tablet or laptop, or assistive device? Or does it apply to someone who doesn’t know how to open the attachment or search for health information online? A scope of digital inclusion and community technology was adopted into law in Washington State in 2009 when, as part of its state broadband planning, it established a Community Technology Opportunity Program (Revised Code of Washington — RCW 43.330.412).

Anchor policy in comprehensive frameworks. A whole-systems approach acknowledges the complexity and interplay of factors that foster the digital divide. In addition to adopting the standard definitions, there is an opportunity for more companies and communities, anchor institutions, legislatures and programs to adopt a proven comprehensive framework for their digital inclusion work and to use it to educate and plan. Seattle’s most recent Digital Equity Action Plan, launched in 2016, adopted a strategic goals in these areas: 1) Connectivity, 2) Skills Training, 3) Devices and Technical Support. Applications and online services are additional digital equity goal areas for the City. The vision for Seattle’s plan makes a clear connection between digital inclusion and race and social justice work by emphasizing the need to reach “those who are historically underserved or underrepresented.” A good reference tool for digital inclusion plans is the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Building Digital Communities, a Framework for Action, co-written with International City/County Management Association and University of Washington Technology and Social Change Group.

Government has a role as a convener & participant, but not a singular responsibility. As investors and shepherds of public interest, governments have the capacity to convene experts and stakeholders to identify needs and muster resources to solve digital inclusion problems. Other institutions, companies or organizations often partner or lead the establishment of digital inclusion collaborations at the local, regional, state or national levels. Government agencies are important partners in these networks and can provide essential support to sustain them. Funders need to assist in enabling these collaborations or networks to operate and to enable the systems to exchange best practices, tools, and needs. These digital inclusion coalitions or networks provide a valuable channel of knowledge between government, education, non-profit human service providers, neighborhood groups, and the private sector.

Digital inclusion planning and policy should be intentional, and also nurtured. Seattle had the foresight in 1996 to create the first digital inclusion planner position in the country. Portland, D.C., Austin and other cities have followed suit. The planner can help the city focus their educational digital inclusion initiatives, planning and implementation. Find out who is the person or team responsible for digital inclusion planning in your city. Educate and encourage these champions.

On the technology side for local government, digital inclusion consideration should be linked and embedded where the public interacts with technology. In addition to broadband, a digital equity lens should be applied to smart cities initiatives and other public technology arenas of open data, smart cities, Internet of Things (IoT), public engagement and privacy and security where there are public interfaces, engagement, and data. Since nearly all public and human services, jobs and economic development now require digital skills and interactions, these services and the departments providing them also benefit from recognizing and embedding digital inclusion support. In 2017, the City of Seattle Digital Equity Progress Report identified nine city departments that contributed to digital skill building through their programs.

Build community capacity and work with trusted ambassadors. Those from and in the communities with digitally disadvantaged residents are the experts on their needs and bring the best strategies for delivering services. Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund and Austin’s similar Community Technology Opportunity Program (CTOP) funding model enable partnerships with those culturally competent trusted ambassadors closest to the communities we’re trying to serve. In trying to scale, some investors and programs have not done due diligence in involving and funding the smaller organizations and representatives who could help ensure program success. There is a risk, but also an opportunity to collaborate and support these organizations in a way that develops their capacity to deliver services and helps cities, universities and other collaborators learn from and share expertise.

Read between the data lines. Telling the story of digital inclusion need and program impact for policy making requires collection and reflection on both quantitative and qualitative data. It takes data to get dollars…and dollars to collect the data and stories of how those four-year-olds benefitted from their time in the tech lab. Policies and investments should enable digital inclusion impact research to be conducted over time and designed with the full participation of the communities served. National data is very helpful, but not always inclusive or reflective of people of color, limited English speakers, those with disabilities, Native Americans, or others. Since 2000, Seattle has conducted a survey of residents to assess the levels of technology access and adoption and barriers to adoption. This helps guide local strategies. The newest survey results will be released in late 2018. No data collection tool is perfect, but choices about data collection strategy and the limits to each strategy need to be conscious and transparent. Also, the indicators change as technology and communities change.

There is important research and data work that needs to be supported, improved and better shared. A growing informal network of researchers and evaluators exchange measures and tools, but not broadly enough or effectively between sectors. An international hub for digital inclusion researchers, indicators, survey tools and data could make a significant difference in the field.

Embed and integrate digital inclusion into your mission and all layers of policy and programs. For cities and towns, or companies and organizations, this means considering digital inclusion plans adopted by leadership, embedding in comprehensive and strategic plans, community development plans, department work plans and budget goals. Digital inclusion advocates need to have internal allies and understand budget cycles well enough to propose digital inclusion investments at times of opportunity.

Public benefit guidelines, regulation and partnerships can and should be used to address multiple aspects of digital inclusion. As 5G and the next generation of telecom infrastructure is deployed, towns and cities have a critical opportunity to develop digital equity public benefit priorities that could guide partnerships, where deployments are made, job training and hiring, and reinvestment of telecom related revenues from fees, pole attachments, or public building use to help low income neighborhoods and residents. This may be through a combination of dollars and services. In Seattle’s cable franchises, we negotiated side agreements for funds for digital equity programs and broadband connections. San Jose has legislation for establishment of a digital inclusion fund. Ensuring the authority for local governments to negotiate public benefits and consumer protections that are responsive to local needs is being strongly challenged and is a significant policy issue for the country.

Finally, someone needs to do more to tackle consumer labeling, education and awareness for broadband and telecom services. The FCC made a small attempt to promote ISP use of a standard optional “nutritional menu” for broadband. Every day, we hear of someone trying to sort out the cost and options for getting broadband service and they’re often trying to sort out bundles of services. Some mobile providers are to be credited for starting to simplify plans. Residents who can least afford it, are most challenged to understand the plans, and don’t have techies and economists in their social network, are more likely to be upsold services and bundles they can’t afford, pay more of their income, and have greater problems getting help. This structural issue is unjust and perpetuates an economic and digital divide.

Policy is iterative and relies on you. The attention to digital inclusion policies and other policies which embrace digital inclusion is growing and will keep changing. It lies at the intersection between technology growth and developing thriving, inclusive communities. It’s exciting to see champions of digital inclusion across the world in all sectors. Often, getting policy going just requires a few threads, a few people in a room, and a visit with those four-year-olds or others eager for the digital opportunity many of us take for granted. Get out there, get moving. We have work to do.

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David Keyes works at the intersection of information and communications technology adoption, broadband, race and social justice, research and community capacity building. He was the first community technology planner in the country in 1996 and led the development of Seattle’s digital inclusion programs and policies. He has been an active contributor and presenter for a wide range of boards and programs. In 2016, David became the inaugural Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion, awarded by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the Benton Foundation. He is graduate of Antioch College and the University of Washington Evans School.

Amina Fazlullah was a Mozilla Fellow (2017/18) where she worked to promote policies that support broadband connectivity in rural and vulnerable communities in the United States and abroad. She is currently Policy Counsel with Common Sense Media focusing on federal policies that impact the digital equity and privacy of kids and families. Amina was formerly the Benton Foundation’s Policy Director, where she worked to further government policies to address communication needs of vulnerable communities. Before that, Amina worked with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and for the Honorable Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota and at the Federal Communications Commission. She is graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School and Pennsylvania State University. She is also a board member of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.