Digital Equity moonshot: State launches new Office of Digital Equity to help all Washington residents thrive in a connected world

You’re most likely reading this on a device connected to the internet. Consider yourself lucky because 45% of Washington residents either have no internet service in their home or have less than 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed. At that speed, you can check email and browse a few internet sites, but you can’t stream a TV program or movie, participate in a video call, or have a reliable connection for more than one person at a time.

Pretty rough, right? Now take a step back and think about folks who don’t have or can’t afford a computer or mobile device, or who are hesitant or don’t even know how to go online even if they could.

Digital equity begins with infrastructure, but it’s much more than laying fiber or linking to satellites to get people in rural areas connected.

The Washington Statewide Broadband Office is on the path to accomplish the nation’s most aggressive broadband goals.

Timeline image with milestone goals and dates for Washington broadband expansion: universal access to FCC definition of broadband speed by 2024; every community with access to 1 gigabit service at anchor institutions like schools and community centers by 2026, and universal 150 megabits per second speeds by 2028 enabling multiple users at the same time, livestreaming content, video calls and more.
in 2019, the state Legislature passed a bill creating the Washington State Broadband Office in the Department of Commerce and tasked the office with bringing universal broadband access by 2024.

This effort is supported by significant state and federal capital funding for investment in broadband infrastructure. The broadband office, Public Works Board and Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) together have committed nearly $450 million in state and federal resources to support and accelerate efforts by communities and Tribes to plan and pursue projects throughout the state.

But access to the internet is just the first step. Digital equity is also about affordability and digital literacy — helping all residents make use of the technologies and opportunities enabled by high speed internet access.

And just as no single technology or approach is right for every community when talking about investing in broadband infrastructure, so too advancing digital equity must be community-led and involve public and private partners.

New Office of Digital Equity focuses on listening, partnering and planning

To be successful, it’s crucial that solutions are community-led.

The state’s broadband office has added a new team focused specifically on digital equity. The new Office of Digital Equity, led by Ernie Rasmussen, will be a hub for this pivotal work in the state Broadband Office. Rasmussen, a Citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, most recently worked at Commerce as the agency’s Tribal liaison and has more than 20 years of experience working with Tribal communities.

Rasmussen and his team are developing a strategic plan to close the digital divide that is leaving behind families and whole communities, and damages our state’s overall economic vitality. Laid bare by the COVID pandemic, the disparity means not being able to find a job, housing or doctor’s office. It means that children aren’t able to do their homework, and seniors and others with limited resources struggle with isolation and meeting basic needs like getting groceries or submitting important forms online.

Headshot of Ernie Rasmussen Director of Office of Digital Equity
Ernie Rasmussen is leading Commerce’s new Office of Digital Equity. His team is working to build partnerships throughout the state that will advance community-led efforts to expand affordable broadband access and digital literacy in rural and underserved communities.

Rasmussen explained his “power of three” strategy: “One is to listen. Our team needs to listen and to learn from our most vulnerable communities to understand their specific challenges and needs. Two — to partner. Partnering with our communities to become advocates for those voices, and to empower them to advocate for themselves. Three — to plan. We are developing a strategic plan to effectively and efficiently connect those communities who are suffering the most.”

“Digital navigators” offer trusted stepping stones toward digital equity

Grappling with internet fear and hesitancy is something many of us never think about, but it’s equally as much a barrier as lack of access — and perhaps even more difficult to conquer.

This challenge prompted the legislature to provide $7.5 million for the broadband office to fund a statewide network of “digital navigators,” trusted local guides to help educate first-time internet users in their communities about how to get online safely and feel comfortable exploring the many resources available there.

These digital navigator programs are a cornerstone of the office’s digital equity and inclusion work. Navigators will provide affordable devices, affordable connectivity and the digital literacy skills that Washington residents need to fully participate in civic, cultural, communal and economic life.

Call for digital navigator grant proposals open now through Oct. 29, 2021

The broadband office is seeking organizations to provide digital navigation services. Applications are open now for grants up to $500,000 to organizations that can provide ongoing assistance to people with affordable internet access, device acquisition, technical skills and application support. The window for proposals closes Oct. 29, and work is expected to roll out in January.

In addition, Rasmussen and his team are working with Dr. Karen Johnson, director of the state Office of Equity, to convene a Digital Equity Forum. The forum will bring together stakeholders from around the state including state agencies, local governments, Tribes, legislators, schools and others to discuss obstacles to digital equity and form recommendations to policymakers and others engaged in advancing digital equity. They plan to have public meetings so community members can voice concerns and explain how not having internet access or online skills is impacting them.

The first meeting of the Digital Equity Forum will take place in December and the public is encouraged to participate. Watch for more details.

Digital equity is a statewide issue

Many of the biggest obstacles to building out broadband infrastructure have been experienced in more rural communities. But digital equity is a statewide issue that crosses urban-rural boundaries. Many people face disproportionate barriers regardless of where they live, such as those with lower-incomes, older people with limited computer knowledge and people with disabilities.

In Seattle, the conversation surrounding digital equity is familiar. David Keyes, digital equity program manager for the city, said Seattle has one of the oldest digital equity programs in King County, founded in 1996. They set out then to make sure that residents who were going to use government services online had the skills and access to do so. Even in a high-tech urban center like Seattle, numerous residents still struggle to get online.

King County found that 5% of their residents were still without internet as recently as 2019, and in households that make less than $25,000 per year, a quarter of these residents are without internet access.

Among the measures Seattle is taking to promote digital equity is providing new users with the skills and support they need to be comfortable on the internet. People unfamiliar with the internet are often fearful of what might happen when they get online, even to do something as simple as using Zoom to attend a local quilting class, or find their nearest park. They have heard horror stories of “pushing the wrong bottom” and having their identity stolen, or getting a screen full of unwanted images or questionable pop-up screens.

Local action teams and public-private partnerships are essential to expanding and promoting access and digital literacy

While initiatives such as the Digital Equity Forum and Digital Navigators are just beginning, Broadband Action Teams throughout the state have been facilitating community-based efforts on broadband access and infrastructure investment for several years. The action teams are comprised of local anchor institutions such as libraries and fire stations, internet service providers (ISPs), economic development organizations, Tribes and community members eager help their neighbors get online.

“We are fortunate to have partners who want to make our broadband infrastructure more robust. This will help with business recruitment, improve our education systems, workforce development programs and healthcare systems,” said Matthew Pleasants, deputy planning manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and leader of the broadband action team for Okanogan and Ferry Counties.

The team continues its work to improve service and reliability to ensure outcomes like hospitals in Okanogan County being able to upload and share digital X-rays at any time. Currently, Pleasants said the network may time out, forcing technicians to wait until the end of the day to send them out when there isn’t as much traffic online.

“Sometimes the quickest solution is for one staff member to download X-rays to a thumb-drive and travel to another site with a better connection.”

Other public and private organizations are also deeply engaged in helping more people connect online.

Partnerships are crucial to expanding access to affordable broadband service, devices and skills. One of the first major efforts led by the Washington Broadband Office was establishing a network of free community Wi-Fi hotspots like this one at the Business Resource Center in Pomeroy, Ferry County. It’s one of hundreds of hotspots throughout the state.

Washington State University Extension and the Association of Washington Business partnered on a rural remote worker program, helping workers with no prior remote work experience improve their job search and online technology skills.

Comcast expanded its successful Internet Essentials Programs, partnering with cities, schools and nonprofits to provide low-cost internet access, devices and digital literacy programs, including a partnership with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) on their internet access programs and community “Lift Zones.”

OSPI and Washington State Libraries, among others have also been instrumental in efforts to start and expand the network of free Wi-Fi hotspots when the pandemic took hold.

Most recently, the broadband office jointly promoted the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) which provides $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. In addition, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

“Come ready to play, day in and day out.”

Promoting digital equity and closing the digital divide won’t be an easy task, but Rasmussen says the broadband office team is geared up and growing to make it happen.

“I think about my high school cross country team that won the state championship. We had a group of guys that cared about the work, and were ready to come to play, day in and day out. That is what this team is prepared to do.”

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