JUNE 2020 – PRESENT
Digital Access for All
Strengthening the Impact
What is Digital Access for All?
In June 2020, The Patterson Foundation created Digital Access for All (DA4A) to explore the efforts of multiple sectors working to enhance access to technology that connects people in ways that foster inclusion and well-being. Exploring digital access is necessary because of the advent of the “Internet of everything,” a concern for access (especially for ALICE families), and the potential possibilities for our communities.
The initiative aspires to discover how individuals, businesses, nonprofits, government, and the media are moving the needle on access to digital technology. The DA4A team has engaged in enriching and insightful conversations with more than 30 national and state organizations and over 50 county leaders in schools, libraries, economic development, and nonprofits. This knowledge informs opportunities to strengthen these efforts collaboratively within our four-county area: Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota.
Discovering and exploring the interconnected opportunities and possibilities that individuals, organizations, and communities offer is at the heart of the DA4A initiative.
Why is The Patterson Foundation supporting this initiative?
Why is digital access important?
- Education and Employment
- Health and Wellness
- Government Services
- Financial Services
- Economic Competitiveness
How has COVID-19 affected digital access?
In March 2020, most Florida K-12 and college students went home for spring break and didn’t return until fall 2020. Educational institutions switched from in-person to online courses within weeks and finished the school term virtually. By fall, a mix of in-person and virtual courses became standard. Schools improvised internet access by offering hotspots and public Wi-Fi accessed in their parking lots. Devices and internet services were provided with the help of the federal CARES act funds.
Workers who could work remotely transitioned to their “home offices” and mostly remain out of the office and employed. Zooming became a noun, verb, and adjective. Unemployed workers were forced to navigate online unemployment and social service support applications.
Libraries and community centers closed, reducing the places those without home digital access relied upon for homework, job searches, and research. Public libraries responded with expanded public Wi-Fi and offering hotspots for checkout.
Access to health care with COVID threats and protocols moved many in-person visits to Telehealth platforms which insurance and government plans agreed to cover.
What are the three essential elements of digital access?
The three essential elements of digital access are:
- Connectivity: The ability to connect to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet
- Devices: Possessing the right device for one’s needs
- Skills/Support: Having access to the necessary training and support to use devices and programs effectively while solving technical issues when they arise
All three need to be present and work together for digital access for all to be achieved.
What are the barriers to digital access?
- Access: Refers to one’s ability to connect to high-speed internet. While income certainly plays a role in determining the level of access community members have to connectivity, it is not the only one, as The Patterson Foundation has discovered during its conversations with organizations and leaders in our four-county area. Access can also be greatly impacted by issues like geography (rural vs. urban setting) and competition (Internet service providers may be less inclined to spend money to upgrade cable and fiber-optic lines in areas where they face little competition).
- Adoption: Refers to whether or not members of a community actually subscribe to a high-speed internet plan. The catch is that the definition of “high-speed” can differ depending on the data source. For instance, nonprofit advocacy groups like Broadband Now often use a threshold of 100+ mbps to define “high-speed,” whereas the FCC has traditionally used 25 mbps. Think of this as the difference between a car whose top speed is 25 mph versus one that can go 100 mph.
- Affordability: Cost is perhaps the most limiting factor when it comes to many asset-limited families and individuals across the country, including those living in our four-county area. Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer budget plans for qualifying lower-income residents. These plans run as low as $9.99 per month, but they often are limited to 25 mbps versus 100+ mbps for higher-priced plans and require that the user has no outstanding credit balances.
- Awareness: The Patterson Foundation’s research shows that even when low-cost, basic plans (+/- 25 mbps) are available for ALICE families in our region, residents are often unaware of them or how to qualify for them. Furthermore, in areas like DeSoto County, these low-cost plans may provide access at rates as low as 3-4 mbps, not nearly enough for students engaged in online classes or for parents or individuals who need to work from home.
What is the national landscape?
Efforts across the nation address all three essential digital access elements: connectivity, devices, and skills & support. Examples include community-wide efforts in places like Seattle, Cleveland, Chattanooga, and other municipalities and rural broadband initiatives sponsored by groups like the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
They also include nonprofit agencies like EveryoneOn, which provides a searchable database of discount programs for internet subscriptions and devices sorted by zip code; Northstar, which provides online digital literacy and skills training; and PCs for People, which provides low-cost, refurbished computers for individuals and organizations.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance brings together many of these initiatives to learn and share ideas and best practices by providing a unified voice for digital inclusion policies and programs. Through support, policy, awareness, research, and publications, NDIA shares resources and information among a community of practitioners that include policymakers and the general public.
The Patterson Foundation’s Digital Access for All Resource Library is a great way to learn more about these initiatives and others.
What is the local landscape?
These interviews have included leaders from all four school districts as well as State College of Florida and South Florida State College, the library directors from each county, government officials at the city and county levels, and the heads of the local EDCs and chambers of commerce. They have also included leadership from both local United Way organizations, All Faiths Food Bank, Catholic Charities, Goodwill Manasota, Area Housing Authorities, Boys & Girls Clubs in Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota Counties, Turning Points, Manatee County Rural Health Services, and a host of other nonprofit organizations.
Each shared what they are doing to address our communities' digital needs, particularly as they impact the less fortunate, from free laptops for school-age children to mobile hotspots, digital skills & literacy training, telehealth and job services, expedited degree programs in technology fields, and more. However, all acknowledge that for each step forward, many more still need to be taken.
The Patterson Foundation's Digital Access for All initiative is an evolving effort to identify ever-expanding opportunities to come together and seek solutions to this most modern of challenges.
What is the state of digital access within our asset-limited families and communities?
Asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) families and communities can be found among all ages, ethnicities, households, and geographic areas within our four-county area. They often live below or barely above the federal poverty guidelines and struggle to afford basic necessities like food, housing, and healthcare, despite working one or more full-time jobs. A lack of education and digital skills prevent many from attaining higher-paying jobs or promotions.
The table below illustrates the percentage of ALICE households within our four-county area:
Source: United For Alice
As the table suggests, the percentage of ALICE households in our four-county area is higher than many might expect, and the barriers affecting digital access for this portion of our population are significant.
For example, due to such issues as cost, availability, and other factors, ALICE households in our four-county area are far less likely than the general population to have high-speed internet in their homes. As the bar graph below demonstrates, nearly one-third of ALICE households in Charlotte, Manatee, and Sarasota counties lack a subscription to a high-speed internet plan at even the lower federal standard of 25 mbps. The numbers are of even greater concern in DeSoto county, where just over 40% of ALICE households have such plans.
In terms of education for our youth, employment opportunities for job seekers, and access to healthcare, social services, and other vital needs, both the short- and long-term impacts of this disparity in digital access between ALICE households and other members of our communities are cause for concern. Exploring ways to close this gap is one of The Patterson Foundation's Digital Access for All initiative's key goals.