Boosting Digital Equity in Phoenix

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, June 26, 2023

Digital Beat

To aid both state broadband policymakers and local communities as they create state visions of digital equity, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society's Visions of Digital Equity Project seeks to highlight diverse perspectives to the issues surrounding digital equity, from Alaska to Texas, covering rural, urban, and tribal challenges. We've captured some of those perspectives in a series of essays. 

These insights informed a set of principles to guide the work of creating visions of digital equity. This month, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is soliciting feedback on these principles.

Boosting Digital Equity in Phoenix

Grace Tepper

A partnership between Common Sense Media, Arizona State University (ASU), and the Digital Equity Institute is working to increase awareness of and enroll eligible households in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Through a multipoint marketing campaign targeted to low-income communities with high eligibility for the federal broadband subsidy program, Common Sense Media is directing Phoenix residents toward the ASU Experience Center, a call center with more than 100 phone specialists. Here, trained employees walk Phoenicians through the ACP application process.

With the Digital Equity Institute, ASU is working to bring a team of digital navigators to the Experience Center and build off of the partnership with Common Sense Media. With additional funding from Maricopa County, ASU’s Experience Center continues to expand its capabilities to make a range of digital equity resources available to callers.

This work could not be done without combining national resources and community knowledge. Local organizations and preexisting digital navigators ground the work in community knowledge and connections, while the policy expertise and resources provided by Common Sense Media help to expand reach. ASU’s Experience Center has the infrastructure and people to run the campaign’s programming end, building off of other efforts to help ensure that everyone is online.

Trust is central to the campaign’s efficacy, both in advertising and over the phones. All of the marketing materials identify Common Sense Media, ASU, and the City of Phoenix to make it clear that these trusted organizations are active participants in the campaign. This is crucial so that eligible residents differentiate the campaign from an internet service provider marketing its own services.

At the call center, digital inclusion training stresses practicing empathy to connect with callers and work with them to accomplish the arduous task of enrolling in the ACP. 

“I know the person calling me has been through hell,” says Alexa Tarvid, digital navigator supervisor at ASU. “A person who has fought their battles, who doesn’t want to have to call us but needs to. I’m here to serve them; whatever they’re feeling, I’m feeling.”

Connecting the Unconnected

Phoenix is a prime location for this awareness campaign for a number of reasons. The COVID-19 health emergency closed schools, libraries, and community centers, sending students to learn from home. More than 250,000 families did not have access or adequate internet speeds to attend school or finish assignments. In Maricopa County, some neighborhoods report that as many as 70 percent of residents are still without adequate internet performance needed for remote work, downloading homework, and streaming as of late 2022.

The ratio of ACP-eligible households to ACP-enrolled households in the city leaves a lot of room to grow. And a lot of people could immediately benefit from the outreach program.

Phoenix is an incredibly diverse city. Over 42 percent of the population is Hispanic, and some ACP-eligible households face a language barrier to internet access. To address this, the call center services are all available in English and Spanish, as is the advertising campaign run by Common Sense Media.

Access to affordable broadband internet through the Affordable Connectivity Program is often the tip of the iceberg of issues for the callers the Experience Center helps daily. The intersectionality of internet access and its effect on the health, economic mobility, educational opportunity, and agency of its users is what makes digital equity so important.

The ASU Experience Center received more than 1,500 calls about the ACP in the first two months of the outreach campaign. People reaching out to the Experience Center for help have lived with inequities all their lives. They know what it means to be without the benefits of the internet. 

  • The call center has been helping a neurodivergent man who is acting as his mother’s caregiver. He struggles with technology and has been the victim of scams in the past. Without the ACP, he and his mother wouldn’t be able to afford internet access at all. Gaining access to broadband allows him to manage his mother’s medical appointments and records and more easily access the resources he needs to keep them both afloat.
  • Another call the center received was from a grandmother with a disability raising her granddaughter. Her granddaughter is participating in online schooling. The school has supplied the laptop but cannot help with the internet. Their high internet bill has been causing serious stress on their already extremely tight budget. The ACP helps to loosen that budget and helps this grandmother sleep a little easier at night.
  • An older woman currently has internet access, but her daughter pays for it. Her daughter was just diagnosed with cancer, and so, to not put any more of a burden on her daughter, she is trying to enroll in the ACP and get internet access all on her own.
  • An older gentleman called, just wanting to know what this internet stuff is all about, and is getting help from ASU to enroll in the ACP program, get connected, and get a device.

Once people experience this program and find out that it works for them, the network effect expands reach deeper into eligible communities: “If you get a kid online, they can now help their parents; they can help their grandparents. And the parents can tell their friends this program is legitimate,” says Drew Garner, state broadband policy fellow at Common Sense Media. “And we see that in events where people tell other people that this thing works.”

According to Tarvid, explaining all the opportunities that come with internet access is more impactful than using one definition of digital equity when she’s on the phone. Once they hear what broadband can help them do, she says, they don’t have a hard time understanding what digital equity means.

“They don’t have internet, so they can’t do online banking. They can’t look at their health records immediately. People then see that it’s really important,” Tarvid says. “Once you start that train of thought for them, it carries very easily.”

The Importance of Achieving Digital Equity

Sustainability is central to the success of the outreach campaign and any digital equity initiative. It is all about setting communities up for ongoing support, and sharing information to ensure that long-term inequities are being addressed. Building up digital equity resources means investing in established local initiatives, reliable partners, and future growth.

“There should be an ecosystem,” says Erin Carr-Jordan, managing director of the Digital Equity Institute. “It should be that there is a trusted source in addition to folks you already know and already trust who are in your communities.”

Carr-Jordan says that the Affordable Connectivity Program and the call center’s services are a crucial way to further digital equity initiatives in Phoenix.

“The ACP is a catalytic lever that we can pull,” she says. “But again, it is a complex ecosystem of levers that all need to be pulled, and they need to be pulled through the lens of the community of the people. “It is one more reason why having Common Sense as a collaborator--who reaches communities in a way that is well-received—proves a human-centered lens with a digital equity overlay is the best way to conduct outreach.”

The Digital Equity Institute puts this at the heart of its mission of connecting diverse stakeholders––whether they are state, local, or Tribal governments, educational institutions, libraries, health care service providers, or other community anchors––to encourage the development of digital equity ecosystems.

“It has to reflect the diversity of the communities,” Carr-Jordan says. “It can’t be designed in a bubble. It can’t be defined by people who are unfamiliar with what marginalization looks and feels like.”

Explaining Digital Equity

“It is in the best interest of the city to make this a sustainable city at the end of the day, so you want to make sure that you have a level playing field for all of your families,” said Christine Mackay, director of Phoenix Community and Economic Development. “That means they all have access to a quality education so that they can find good jobs. That’s really what you want for all of your citizens.”

Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, said, “In this highly technological world, tech access should not be a privilege; it should be a right.”

The tools that broadband makes available and the agency a person gains with them are the keys to understanding digital equity—and therefore inequity. 

“The wires and the devices and the technology by themselves don’t have any inherent value,” says Garner. “It's only what the person can do with them that matters. That’s the value those technologies bring.”

What Digital Equity Looks Like

ASU undergraduate student, Mary Haddad, shared at a university ASU town hall her vision for a future in which the internet is readily accessible for all: “In an ideal future, we are providing training, online tools, and resources, making sure that we are continuously available if they need help and support.”

To Carr-Jordan, the success of digital equity efforts is measured in a variety of ways. ACP enrollment data is key. But just as important are qualitative measurements of success. For her, this happens in two ways: lives changed and positive community response.

Seeing that people are able to use the tools the internet brings and apply them to their needs is one direct measure of success. And if the community gives feedback saying that they are doing a good job, that is another.

“It's the holistic, comprehensive understanding that will actually tell us whether we have done a good job,” she says.

More in This Series

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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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