Achieving Digital Independence in Utah
Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Achieving Digital Independence in Utah
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.
Utah continues working to close the state's digital divide. On June 20, 2023, the Utah Broadband Center released its draft State Digital Equity Plan in conjunction with its Digital Connectivity Plan. Both plans will help guide the allocation of federal funding to the state for broadband access and adoption expansion over the next five years. Here, we take a look at Utah's digital equity plan.
Utah's Digital Equity Vision Statement
The state's vision for digital equity is to realize a Utah where all are invited to fully participate in modern society through access to affordable high-speed internet, safe and reliable devices, and training to achieve digital independence. Utah's digital equity plan is rooted in the following core values: Teamwork, Integrity, Equity, Responsibility, Inclusion, and Transparency.
Barriers to Universal Connectivity
Hundreds of thousands of Utah residents face barriers to accessing the benefits of broadband. In the State Digital Equity Plan, the Utah Broadband Center (UBC) details some of the major barriers to achieving digital equity that Utah faces.
Some residents live in “digital connectivity deserts,” areas that are too far from a source of free public Wi-Fi and computer access for the individual to reliably access. Even with public transportation, there may not be a library, community center, or other such place within a reasonable distance.
For most unconnected residents, remaining disconnected or connected in a limited way is a choice, a straightforward decision that they do not need the internet. However, some may lack awareness of the value of high-speed internet and the economic, educational, and social benefits of connectivity.
Affordability is cited as the second most common reason for not adopting home internet. Only 57% of low-income households report having home internet access, and 15% of all households with home broadband reported they had trouble paying their bills during the pandemic. A startling 68% of Utahns do not have access to a home internet plan that costs $60 per month or less. This does not even account for speeds available at the lowest cost tier, which necessitates subscribing to an even more expensive plan.
Up to 59,000 Utah households have a smartphone only, and no other computing devices to access the internet. Even more concerningly, up to 26,000 Utah households have no internet-connected devices at all.
Digital independence relies on confidence: knowing one has the skills to navigate a known environment and the tools to learn how to use a new environment. Many individuals may have some digital skills, but they lack confidence with unknown technologies or systems. This lack of confidence often results in disengagement, where the individual chooses to remove themselves from the situation rather than risk the unknown. Individuals who lack digital skills and information literacy struggle to use high-speed internet or online services effectively. The training opportunities available to individuals may not be catered to their specific needs enough to be worth their time or commitment.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act seeks to focus digital equity efforts on specific vulnerable communities which Congress calls "Covered Populations." Just over 60 percent of Utah’s residents fall into at least one covered population. In addition to these, Utah has added New Americans to the eight covered populations included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
- Affordability is a significant issue for this population, as they may not have the financial resources to afford internet service and digital devices.
- Additionally, they may face challenges related to being a renter, such as limited agency in negotiating internet access with landlords.
- Another barrier faced by this population is digital redlining, which refers to the practice of providing less high-speed internet infrastructure to certain areas, often based on income level and correlated with other factors like race.
- Aging individuals face challenges related to accessible devices and assistive technology.
- Many aging individuals are living on a fixed income, which can limit their ability to afford digital devices, internet access, and other digital resources.
- Many aging individuals did not grow up with digital technology and may not have had the opportunity to develop digital skills earlier in life.
- Aging individuals may face social isolation and lack of social support, which can further hinder their ability to access digital resources and engage in digital communities.
Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals
- Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals face limited agency with internet plans and access options, as their access to the internet may be restricted or heavily monitored.
- Many incarcerated individuals also face predatory costs of connectivity services and limited access to digital skills classes.
- Access to telehealth can be a significant barrier for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, as they may have limited access to in-person medical services and transportation to medical appointments.
- Lack of trust and awareness in federal programs, especially related to access to care, is a significant barrier for many veterans.
- Veterans may have limited digital skills or confidence, making it challenging to access digital resources.
- There is also a lack of systemic support and catered public services for veterans, and fewer organizations that specifically target veterans as their main service population.
Individuals with disabilities
- Websites, software, and digital content may not be designed in a way that is accessible to individuals with disabilities.
- Assistive technology can be expensive and not covered by insurance, making it difficult for individuals with disabilities to access them.
- Qualified technical support: Technical support staff may not be trained in how to work with individuals with disabilities or with necessary accommodations or assistive technology, making it difficult for the individuals to receive the assistance they need to access digital resources.
Individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group
- Digital redlining: Some communities, particularly those with large populations of racial and ethnic minorities, may have less access to high-speed internet infrastructure, as well as affordable service, leaving them at a disadvantage compared to areas with better digital connectivity.
- Racial discrimination and implicit bias in public programs/services: Individuals from minority groups may face discrimination and bias when trying to access public services or programs. This can manifest as difficulties in navigating the system, lack of access to resources, or unequal treatment.
- Many digital resources, such as educational materials or training programs, may not be designed to meet the needs of individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Individuals who primarily reside in a rural area
- The lack of existing broadband infrastructure, including fiber-optic cables, cell towers, and satellite systems, can make it difficult to provide high-speed internet access to rural and remote areas.
- Limited competition among internet service providers (ISPs) in rural areas can result in higher costs for internet service, making it less affordable.
- Rural areas may have limited access to digital resources such as online education, telehealth, and e-commerce.
- The cost of digital devices can be higher in rural areas due to limited competition among vendors.
Individuals with a language barrier
- Public services, technical support, and other resources may not be available in languages other than English, which can prevent individuals with a language barrier from accessing important information or using digital resources effectively.
- Enrolling in federal programs may be more difficult for individuals with a language barrier, as information and resources may not be available in their native language.
- Individuals with a language barrier may have difficulty communicating with ISPs or understanding technical terms and jargon related to internet services.
- Language barrier: New Americans may have limited English proficiency, making it challenging for them to navigate digital resources, including websites and online forms.
- New Americans may not be familiar with the digital resources and services available in their new community.
- New Americans may come to the United States with limited financial resources, which can make it difficult for them to purchase the necessary technology to access digital resources.
- Some New Americans may not have had access to digital technology in their home countries or may have had limited exposure to it, leading to lower levels of digital literacy and confidence in using digital tools.
Utah's Goals, Objectives, and Action Plan for Digital Equity
Based on the barriers facing Utahns, the following projects have been identified as high priorities to achieve a digitally connected Utah. Projects are organized according to the strategic goal they address.
I. Community Coordination & Resource Discoverability
Objective: Create a digital inclusion community of practice.
Action: Identify a suitable backbone organization to manage a statewide network of practitioners and support capacity building.
- Within six months, UBC will run a competitive RFP and select a suitable organization with statewide reach, experience building and sustaining programs, and expertise in digital access.
- The selected organization will identify digital inclusion programs and resource providers; establish a method for practitioners to network and share expertise; gather and promote best practices; offer formal training towards certifications; and host regular community calls. Practitioner-facing activities will be launched within one year.
- The selected organization will provide annual reports and data as requested by the Utah Broadband Center, including an annual impact summary, granular outcome data, contact lists, and recommendations for targeted areas of focus in the coming year(s) to address remaining barriers to digital access.
Action: Provide programming stipends and connect organizations with professional development to stimulate an increase in digital inclusion practitioners and workforce across all sectors serving all Utah residents.
- UBC will provide a professional development program similar to the NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellowship, where participants receive training, work towards professional certifications, develop shared visions and goals, and connect with a professional network. Within one year, UBC will open applications for the professional development program and will select the first cohort. Within two years, the organization will begin implementing the training program to the first cohort.
- The selected backbone organization will work collaboratively with UBC to design the training program. The backbone organization will offer the training regularly and in an accessible format to maximize participation.
- Participants’ sponsoring organizations will receive stipends to support their digital inclusion activities. Organizations will apply for the program on behalf of their participating employee(s). In an effort to equitably represent the needs of covered populations in funds distribution, UBC will prioritize applications from organizations with expertise in serving covered populations.
Objective: Maximize the discoverability of programs and resources with a central directory.
Action: Establish a directory of digital inclusion programs and resources based on the asset inventory initiated during the state planning process.
- Within one year, in partnership with the Utah Geospatial Resource Center, UBC will create a publicly accessible directory of all known free public programs and resources for digital inclusion.
- This directory will feature: an accessible and mobile-friendly interface; a printer-friendly list or export option; an interactive map option; flags for users to indicate incorrect or misleading information; a form for organizations to submit new programs or resources for inclusion.
Action: Maintain the directory with current information for easy use by individual residents and digital inclusion practitioners.
- Once the directory is built, the selected backbone organization or RFP for another organization will assume responsibility for updating and maintaining the digital asset.
- The backbone organization will conduct an annual review, which shall include: random spot-checks for accuracy; adding, verifying, or correcting all form submissions and flags from the previous year; uploading the most recent data from existing datasets used to build the directory.
II. Training for Digital Independence
Objective: Create multiple pathways for digital independence through flexible programs that fit the diverse needs of Utah residents.
Action: Create a digital independence training resource with statewide availability.
- Provide funding for the development and implementation of a digital navigator training program, to be made available statewide to any interested organization or individual.
- Rely on organizations with proven success implementing this type of programming to create training materials.
- Within the training, identify and highlight opportunities to design flexible programs which meet specific needs of local communities, including the nine covered populations.
- Ensure that organizations create programs that are not one-and-done; encourage periodic follow-up contact, Q&A sessions, and the creation of peer groups.
- Work in tandem with community organizations to provide information about other programs and support that are affordable and accessible.
- Develop culturally-sensitive and language-accessible considerations, approaches, and materials.
- Offer practitioner training events on a regular basis in accessible locations around the state, possibly including virtually.
- Encourage direct service organizations in every sector to support employees receiving this training. This includes education, private industry, nonprofits, libraries, veterans services, state agencies, and more.
- Within two years, UBC will have a plan to make digital navigator training available statewide. Within three years, UBC will have offered the digital navigator training program a minimum of six times, training a minimum of 20 individuals from at least ten separate organizations.
Action: Work with the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) to formalize educational benefits for digital navigators or comparable positions.
- Design paid internships, externships, and ‘returnships’ where individuals are trained as digital navigators and provide direct service through a community organization.
- Collaborate with professional associations, labor groups, and professional licensing or accreditation authorities to allow training and service as a digital navigator to count towards required continuing education credits or practicum experience.
- Align with K-12 organizations to encourage high school students to participate in digital navigator training programs and public services for high school or concurrent enrollment credit.
Objective: Support the expansion of existing digital skill-building programs at community centers, senior services centers, schools, libraries, and veterans centers.
Action: Identify successful digital skill-building programs to use as a model for new efforts.
- Identify and assess metrics already in use by direct service organizations to find trends in strategies or program design which show the greatest implementation success. within one year.
- Provide support to those organizations to create reports or guiding documents on key features of their programs for use by the wider community of practice, within two years.
Action: Actively support funding opportunities which utilize expert practitioners for the expansion of existing programs and establishment of new programs.
- Utilize backbone organization to provide ongoing professional development and support for expert practitioners building new programs or scaling existing ones.
- To increase sustainability, prioritize projects with cost-sharing plans, and enable multi-year grants for organizations with a local match.
- Maintain central coordination throughout to avoid funding duplicative projects and maximize the contributions of experts.
Objective: Prioritize the online accessibility of public services and resources, and support alternative methods of access.
Action: Define a reasonable standard for accessibility of online services and resources, and assess the state’s current compliance with that standard.
- Rely on industry experts such as the Utah Department of Technology Services and WebAIM at Utah State University to determine whether the new standard for state websites is an appropriate standard for local services as well.
- Expand the standard beyond web accessibility to define appropriate “alternative methods of access,” such as paper forms which can be mailed or staff available in person to set appointments.
- Make available a tool such as those created by WebAIM for local entities to measure their current accessibility against the standard.
- Within two years, UBC will create a report on the accessibility of online services, including results from all 29 counties and at least 25% of cities and towns.
- Work with local entities to use the assessment tool and identify needs in their own service accessibility, within three years.
Action: Provide necessary resources to all identified public service entities whose online resources do not meet the standard.
- Encourage entities to embrace the new “standard of care” for the accessibility of public services internally and to take ownership of their own accessibility.
- Where organizations do not have the ability to comply with accessibility standards, provide a mechanism to support compliance in bulk, e.g. hosting county websites or providing an agreed number of staff hours for web development.
- Within five years, entities describing their online services as “fully accessible” will increase by 10%.
III. Responsible Support for Sustainable Community Programs
Objective: Ensure longevity by prioritizing support for projects with a high likelihood of ongoing local investment for sustainable program maintenance.
Action: For any programs funded by the Utah Broadband Center, require organizations to create long-term sustainability plans for program maintenance beyond the term of the Digital Equity Act.
- Encourage matches in the form of multi-year cost-sharing plans, where the grant share decreases as the local or other funding source share increases until the program is self-sustaining.
- Digital Equity Act dollars may supplement existing funding, but never supplant.
- Within three years, UBC, the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget (GOPB), and other stakeholders will examine the state’s use of federal funding for projects with digital access outcomes. If the use is determined to be below acceptable levels, UBC will work with eligible organizations to increase quality applications for federal funding.
Action: Assist organizations including other state agencies and local governments with internal digital access planning and digital inclusion program design.
- Provide templates, sample assessment documents or community engagement plans, sample job descriptions, and other resources.
- Create clear pathways for successful existing direct service efforts to continue community-focused operations and investigate or implement new projects.
- Where other state agencies, local governments, and community organizations create positions or assign staff to coordinate digital inclusion programs within their institution, encourage these positions to participate in the statewide community of practice.
- Encourage bold works from organizations with track records of successful community impact.
Objective: Maximize the responsible use of diverse funding sources to minimize reliance on Digital Equity Act funds.
Action: Identify existing federal funding sources with outcome alignment and assist Utah organizations in identifying where digital access is already present in the objectives of those funding sources.
- Examine funding such as Americorps, Community Development Block Grants, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Department of Education state formula grants, and others to identify priority areas for existing services that are also impacted by digital access outcomes.
- Align with the state’s projects and initiatives funded through other sections of IIJA to ensure when efforts can be combined they utilize the least funding possible to get the job done.
- Maximize the state’s use of E-Rate funds for anchor institution connectivity, both category 1 and category 2, to ensure that every anchor institution in Utah including auxiliary locations or branches has a minimum circuit of 1Gbps.
- Within two years, UBC, GOPB, and other stakeholders will examine the six described funding types and make recommendations to the Utah Legislature on stabilizing or otherwise strengthening these avenues for action.
Action: Future-proof anchor institutions by stabilizing or codifying existing state and local funding mechanisms for operations so new funding can support innovative, over-the-horizon digital inclusion efforts.
- Maintain stable funding for the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) cost sharing of anchor institutions’ non-E-Rate portion and other network operations maintenance and general connectivity support expenses.
- Identify education funding mechanisms that support digital inclusion activities beyond a K-12 environment and examine the stability and resilience of the funds and recipients.
- Provide an annual increase to the Community Library Enhancement Fund to ensure public access to high-quality technology is ongoing and resilient against local budget limitations.
- Assess operational costs related to connectivity and telehealth support for local health departments, clinics, and similar anchor institutions, and ensure that sites are maximizing potential participation in E-Rate and UETN services.
- Where existing workforce upskilling programs include digital skill-building, identify key funding sources, and whether support is reflective of trends in workforce development best practices.
- Encourage local governments to work towards stable funding such as dedicated tax revenues or endowments to reduce dependency on grant cycles.
Objective: Highlight digital inclusion as a core service already present in the missions of many stakeholder organizations.
Action: Through professional development and investment in organizational capacity for direct services, assist organizations in defining digital inclusion as a core part of their existing missions.
- With two years remaining in Digital Equity Act funding, UBC will release a mid-term report on progress toward goals in the State Digital Equity Plan so far, including qualitative and quantitative data.
- With one year remaining in Digital Equity Act funding, UBC will release a “final priorities” report outlining goals in need of concerted efforts over the final year, as well as organizations already working on those goals.
- At the conclusion of Digital Equity Act funding, UBC will release a summary of qualitative and quantitative data collected over the five-year period of performance highlighting the impact of local efforts and encouraging localities to maintain newly established or expanded programs in future years.
IV. Increased Availability of Safe and Reliable Devices
Objective: Maximize locally available resources and expertise by standardizing programs that recycle, refurbish and redistribute existing devices.
Action: Streamline the process for refurbishment and redistribution of state-owned devices to fulfill community needs and maximize use of existing resources.
- Support the ongoing pilot project with DTS and the Utah Department of Cultural & Community Engagement (CCE) to refurbish employee devices and distribute them through existing partner relationships.
- Identify threats, including state code or administrative rules which prevent device refurbishment from being allowed with government devices.
- Within two years, DTS and CCE will release a report on challenges and best practices for government device refurbishment based on the pilot project.
- Within four years, DTS will assist the Utah Legislature in creating a pathway for local governments to safely and legally refurbish lightly used devices for distribution back into the local community.
Action: Coordinate the use of existing device placement programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Tech Charities.
- Designate a coordinator within the community backbone organization to act as a central point of contact between device providers and community groups.
- Ensure all digital inclusion practitioners are aware of device placement programs and resources available to the community they serve.
Objective: Support innovative efforts to broaden the impact of device lending and public computer access in K-12, higher education, and library settings.
Action: Support programs offering device access that allow for whole-life impact, not limiting the recipient to narrowly defined activities.
- Within two years, identify and launch a pilot project for whole-life use of 1:1 student devices that are useful for parents without detracting from their educational purpose.
- Assess family needs by coordinating with Local Education Agencies (LEAs), Utah Education Association, Utah Afterschool Network, Utah PTA, and other parent or educational advocacy groups.
- Support libraries and other organizations with public computer labs in offering connectivity without discrimination, not barring users from quality-of-life digital services such as social media, gaming, and streaming.
- Expand utilization of federal funding mechanisms such as E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund to support internet connectivity, device availability, and device lending in public schools, libraries, and anchor institutions.
- Within five years, release a report and recommendations on best practices for scaling a pilot project for whole-life use of 1:1 student devices in schools across Utah.
Action: Develop device availability measures within disaster readiness plans to ensure residents don’t lose connectivity when it is most critical.
- Allocate disaster response authority to a public entity such as UETN for expedited support to anchor institutions. Allocate funds triggered by a local or state emergency requiring online learning such as wildfires or public health crises. Align with FEMA efforts which include schools, libraries, and hospitals.
- Within three years, work with administrative rule-makers to allow for expedited purchase and distribution of devices and neighborhood-based and/or mobile connectivity hotspots when triggered by a local or state emergency.
- Designate device lending programs as essential services in order to receive federal disaster funding.
Objective: Encourage basic cybersecurity measures by requiring resources or education to be tied to all device distribution programs.
Action: Work with experts to develop a simple, useful guide to basic cybersecurity measures for all computer users.
- Within three years, UBC will release this guide in collaboration with the Utah Division of Technology Service (DTS), the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, and the Utah State Library Division.
- Distribute a physical version of the resource to all existing digital skill-building programs, as well as to anchor institutions. This should be in a format or various formats households are likely to keep, such as fridge magnets or mousepads.
- Make the resource available online and enable organizations to request copies for free on an ongoing basis.
- Within four years, UBC will distribute at least 100,000 units of the safety guide to Utah residents.
Action: Require all device distribution programs under this plan to provide the free resource alongside devices distributed.
- Prioritize support for programs that also include basic cybersecurity training and education in a digital skill-building course.
V. Affordable Connectivity for Everyone
Objective: Define true affordability for covered populations and incorporate this recommendation into the state’s minimally acceptable affordable internet plan for BEAD projects.
Action: Develop partnerships with internet service providers (ISPs) to design low-cost broadband plans for low-income households. These plans should meet or exceed the FCC’s definition for high-speed internet and cost no more than 2% of a household’s income.
- Internationally, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development suggests a threshold for entry-level affordable broadband service at 2% of a country’s average monthly income. Notably, broadband prices in the United States have been notoriously difficult to study due to a lack of comprehensive data, assorted fees, and varying price-speed tiered structures.
- From the consumer perspective, an affordable internet plan for covered populations in Utah would be one that meets the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) former definition of affordable broadband for all Americans at a cost that is no more than 2% of a household’s income.
- Within six months, UBC will report publicly and to the Utah Broadband Alliance the percentage of low-income households with access to affordable broadband plans according to the state’s definition. Every year thereafter, UBC will update its numbers and report the new findings to the Utah Broadband Alliance.
- Utilize low-income housing tax credit qualified census tracts to prioritize project areas. Tracts must have 50% of households with incomes below 60% of the area median gross income (AMGI) or have a poverty rate of 25% or more. Difficult Development Areas (DDA) are areas with high land, construction, and utility costs relative to the area median income.
Objective: Solidify existing outreach efforts to inform communities about affordable internet options, and establish coordinated ongoing outreach.
Action: Coordinate with community organizations to create a comprehensive database of affordable internet options available to low-income households.
- This database should include details on eligibility requirements, cost, and available discounts. The database should be updated regularly and widely promoted to ensure that low-income households are aware of their options.
- Within two years, UBC will determine the number of low-income households reached through outreach efforts to that point, including the state campaign with Education Superhighway.
- Within three years, UBC will initiate a new coordinated outreach effort to inform households of the ACP with a target to reach 70% of the households not yet engaged through previous outreach efforts.
- Within five years, UBC will report on the effectiveness of its coordinated plan to reach 70% of the remaining low-income households through outreach efforts.
Action: Train digital navigators to work with low-income households to identify affordable internet options and help with the enrollment process.
- These digital navigators should be located in public-facing organizations such as libraries, community centers, and schools to ensure that they are accessible to those who need them.
Objective: Support coordination between ISPs, qualifying entities (state, federal, tribal agencies), and community-based organizations to increase ACP adoption.
Action: Work with ISPs to create a uniform, streamlined application process for low-income households to enroll in affordable internet plans.
- This process should be simple and easy to navigate to encourage greater adoption. Encourage ISPs to provide training or assistance materials to community-based organizations who are likely to support individuals in the enrollment process.
- Establish a central method for individual residents to share their experiences and their thoughts about the ACP and ISP enrollment processes with the Utah Broadband Center, to be compiled and passed on to the FCC. Coordinate with ISPs to designate ACP experts at each service provider who can answer consumer questions about the enrollment process and respond to concerns the Utah Broadband Center wishes to elevate.
- Within two years, UBC will show an increase of 50% in ACP enrollment via FCC datasets, to reach a target of 80,000 enrolled households.
- Within five years, UBC will show that 50% of the estimated eligible households in Utah have enrolled in the ACP.
Utah Wants to Hear From You
The Utah Broadband Center released its draft State Digital Equity Plan on June 20, 2023. Public comments on Utah's draft digital equity plan can be submitted using this form until July 6, 2023. In addition, UBC encourages the public to submit comments on local plan drafts, which can be found on the same website page.
The State Digital Equity Plan is a living document that will continue to evolve as UBC receives feedback from residents and assesses the effectiveness of ongoing implementation efforts. Digital access is an ever-changing landscape, and the document must remain flexible and adaptive to ensure that the plan stays relevant and effective.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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