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Achieving context in Statewide Digital Equity Plans


Many of us shop, learn and work on-line. But not everyone has a choice to access the Internet. Some do not have the financial capacity or knowledge to connect even when online access is available. COVID-19 shined a stark spotlight on inequities with people lacking Internet access being left behind in learning, health care, work from home, social connections, civic participation and other important areas of life.

Thanks to new funding from the 2021 Americans Jobs Plan, most states are actively engaging stakeholders in the development of a statewide digital equity plan.  Successful plans will assess three basic questions:

  1. WHAT do stakeholders want to achieve through statewide digital equity?
  2. WHY is achieving these desired conditions important?
  3. HOW to successfully achieve these desired conditions?

Stakeholder perspectives answering each of these three queries inevitably differ as their views are shaped by multiple demographic, social and economic factors.  Examples include:

  • Income: Affording any capable digital device and the requisite connectivity is a threshold challenge for many low-income households.  Those with higher income are more likely to prioritize challenges such as accessing “sufficient” bandwidth.
  • Age: Age is intertwined with how, when and where people desire to access the Internet (phones, computers, at work, at home, at school, etc.) as well as the digital content they want to access (music, movies text messages, emails, news, social media, books documents, etc.).
  • Culture:  Cultural perspectives (linked to tribal affiliation, ethnicity, family backgrounds, etc.) often shape views on priorities for promoting digital access and desirable applications.
  • Rurality: Rural communities typically have limited local Internet connectivity options. Many rural businesses, schools, hospitals, public institutions, and households consider connection to affordable sufficient information communication technology infrastructure as essential to their viability.

Actively seeking ideas and priorities from a diversity of stakeholder interests is a starting point towards framing a contextual understanding of the conditions that describe the “what, why and how” of statewide digital equity plan.  In conducting this assessment however, it is important stakeholders are asked to consider changes which could impact future desirable conditions. For example:

  • How are information technologies likely to evolve over the next 5 to 10 years? Will they have new capabilities?  Will there be more affordable options?  Will digital tools be more intuitive and easier to use?
  • Will demographic shifts impact how, when, where and for what purpose people want to access the Internet? What new barriers to accessing necessary digital technologies might evolve as a result of demographic change and which barriers may lessen?

Plans designed to address conditions desired today will be outdated tomorrow.  Consequently successful statewide digital equity plans must be designed to assess future desirable conditions. 

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”  Digital equity will continue to be a nexus for social and economic equity.  As states across the nation give renewed focus to engage diverse stakeholders in building statewide digital equity plans, there is reason for optimism these goals can be achieved.

Prepared for Futures Research by Bill Gillis, Spokane, WA.