A Digital Equity Plan to Connect All Kansans
Friday, October 27, 2023
A Digital Equity Plan to Connect All Kansans
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of October 23-27, 2023
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.
The Kansas Office of Broadband Development’s goal is to ensure that no Kansan is left behind in the digital world. Kansas's draft Digital Equity Strategic Plan outlines specific strategies and objectives to achieve this goal, including digital skills training, affordable service plans, and broadband-ready devices as top priorities. The plan also emphasizes the transformative power of technology, which can positively impact various areas such as healthcare, education and civic engagement. The state is accepting public comments on the draft digital equity plan until November 2, 2023. Keep reading for a breakdown of Kansas's plans and progress on digital equity.
Kansas's Vision of Digital Equity
From its inception, the Kansas Office of Broadband Development (KOBD) partnered with leaders and community representatives to understand the lived experiences of Kansans, especially as they face barriers to accessing and adopting broadband services. During the height of the COVID pandemic, KOBD programs such as the Broadband Partnership Adoption (BPAG) program supported digital inclusion efforts. KOBD also formed the Digital Equity Advisory Council to represent Kansans from all covered populations from around the state. The Advisory Council plays a critical role in the digital inclusion and equity space. KOBD, along with the Advisory Council, defined the state's vision for digital equity:
Ensure all Kansans can enjoy their universal rights to education, healthcare, employment, social services, and participation in the digital economy at home. These rights hinge on equitable access to quality and reliable high-speed broadband at affordable prices, the training required to support digital skills, and the devices and sustainable technical assistance needed to strive and thrive across the entire state.
KOBD and the Advisory Council also set four high-level goals to measure the state's progress:
- Where you live is not a determinant of how you participate in the digital economy.
- Future-proofed broadband infrastructure is available to all Kansans.
- All Kansans have access to the needed technology devices, education, and training to actively enjoy broadband access and the doors that it opens to our society.
- Every location in the state of Kansas that is central to a community and its ability to support its residents is considered a Community Anchor Institution (CAI) in our society.
Barriers to Digital Equity for Kansans
Of the 1.1 million locations in Kansas, 87,489 remain unserved (8.2%) and 57,316 remain underserved for a total of 144,805 (12.0% of all Broadband Serviceable Locations (BSLs)) without qualifying broadband service. These BSLs exist in all 105 counties, four Sovereign Tribal Nations, and every one of the 1,890 cities, towns, and villages that make up the state of Kansas. Complications with delivering broadband to the most rural parts of the state and with expected workforce shortages in broadband deployment roles in Kansas are additional challenges the state will face.
As of August 2023, 114,159 Kansas households were enrolled in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This is 26.0 percent of the estimated 464,000 eligible households. Additionally, US Census data from the American Community Survey indicates that as many as 15.8 percent of Kansans lack a laptop or desktop computer, emphasizing the need for statewide device programs and support for CAIs who provide public computing access.
While working with state agencies to develop the draft digital equity plan, KOBD learned that there is a need for a statewide inventory of online public services and a strategy for modernizing online services, providing translation and targeted accessibility resources, and delivering technical and navigator support for public services.
Individuals Who Live in Low-Income Households
In Kansas, 20.6 percent of residents are living below 150 percent of the poverty level. Of this population, 31 percent do not have a desktop or laptop computer. Broadband adoption rates for low-income households tend to be lower than that of the general population due to the prioritization of funds for other essential needs. KOBD heard repeatedly during its stakeholder engagement process that despite the availability of adoption and affordability programs like the ACP, many individuals do not know about these programs or fully realize the benefits of having access to the internet.
Members of this population and organizations serving them alike informed KOBD that major barriers for low-income households include affordability of broadband-capable devices, lack of digital literacy skills, and a cybersecurity gap that arises from the absence of using the internet and these devices. Even if a household qualifies for other supportive subsidies (e.g., WIC, SNAP, Lifeline), they may still be unaware of ACP or a local device purchasing program. The challenge is complicated by inconsistent support from county to county. This may be a function of low program awareness in some counties and could be due to the lack of retail outlets, libraries, or other support institutions in these locations.
Individuals who reside in a rural area
Low population density in some areas in Kansas is a barrier for internet providers who may struggle to justify building infrastructure due to concerns about insufficient return on their investment. This challenge explains at least in part the 15 percent difference in the broadband adoption gap between rural and non-rural areas of Kansas. This gap leads to a lack of access to a variety of resources, especially telehealth, education and employment opportunities.
Agriculture is a predominant force in Kansas’ rural communities and is a key industry for the state. Moreover, agriculture is becoming more technology dependent, which makes connectivity to farmland—which in some cases can be thousands of acres—more necessary than ever. Agricultural groups in Kansas have stressed the importance of broadband access through the last acre, not just the last mile. Additionally, KOBD found that satellite service has been one of the only options for some highly rural areas. Satellite upload speeds are insufficient and may be susceptible to interference from weather and seasonal foliage, given Kansas’ landscape. The FCC does not recognize this service as reliable broadband for the purposes of universal service. Given that BSL data only identifies structures that are unserved or underserved without including farmland, extending broadband access beyond physical structures must also be part of the planning process.
There are 163,000 veterans residing in Kansas today, making up 5.5 percent of the state's total population. The U.S. Census shows that 14.5 percent of veterans are without broadband access. The Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs identified two common barriers for veterans: affordability of broadband connectivity and awareness of ACP or device programs. There is evidence to suggest not all veteran service points of contact are familiar with or adequately trained in these affordability and device programs. And access to employment training and opportunities often relies on digital literacy skills, which presents a significant barrier for many veterans, especially for those who are unhoused.
Older veterans have specific barriers to using technology because of a lack of digital education, training, and adoption. Those in this group tend to be on limited or fixed income with little computer knowledge and limited access to technology. The health of veterans and the need to access telehealth was of specific concern and highlighted often in focused conversations. In a survey by Wichita State University (WSU) of those who identified themselves as a veteran, 26.1 percent believed training would help them utilize online doctor visits and 29.8 percent answered they did not know where to go for help with digital literacy skills.
Individuals Who are Members of a Racial or Ethnic Minority
In Kansas, 24 percent of the overall population, or 382,603 individuals, identify as a member of a racial or ethnic minority. To better understand their unique needs, KOBD worked with members of African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Sovereign Tribal Nation communities to identify barriers and needs specific to each population.
Looking at minority populations with more specificity, the African American population makes up 5 percent of Kansans, most residing in or near densely populated urban locations. Affordability is a notable barrier, but not the only significant one. A review of the Broadband Serviceable Location data and conversations with Advisory Council members and key community leaders revealed that another key barrier is the presence of unserved areas despite their proximity to densely populated areas with broadband service. This is particularly true for those who reside in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) and who encounter accessibility issues when the building needs equipment upgrades to improve unit access.
Members of the Hispanic (12% of Kansans), Asian/Pacific Islander (3%), and other ethnic minority populations may have issues accessing resources due to language barriers. There are also inter-generational needs related to family communication and connections that are part of their native cultures.
Individuals who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native count for 0.4 percent of Kansas’ population. In dedicated consultations with the Sovereign Tribal Nations, KOBD learned that members find barriers as they tackle affordability and adoption of broadband connectivity. Furthermore, there is often a struggle to get Sovereign Tribal Nation members to sign up for ACP, even if there is connectivity, due to the universally cumbersome process. While slightly different approaches exist, each of the Sovereign Tribal Nations seeks to solve their affordability and digital equity problems.
Individuals with Disabilities
Fourteen percent of Kansans (409,000 people) live with at least one disability. Up to 71,000 Kansans with disabilities find themselves without a reliable broadband connection, creating additional barriers to participation in social and economic situations that others in their communities can participate in. The first-hand experiences of Kansas who attended KOBD-run listening sessions highlighted how the broadband needs of individuals with disabilities intertwine with their health-related needs. Participants specifically mentioned telehealth and mental health services. Phone support is of limited value without a reliable, quality broadband connection. Most of the programs that provide the appropriate services for disability support are online, and many assistive technologies require broadband to operate most effectively. Participants also mentioned the cost of training on special equipment designed with specific needs and sustainable funding as significant issues. Access to supportive additional services like instruments that can translate into braille or other necessary supportive services needs to be more robust in the state.
Kansas has approximately 8,900 individuals (0.03% of the population) serving in the Department of Corrections (DOC) system, including nearly 140 juveniles. Including those who are in the parole system adds 5,310 individuals. Direct conversations with DOC, corrections officers, and justice-involved individuals focused on those people nearing the end of a sentence and about to re-enter society. The conversations revealed that not all corrections facilities have access to robust broadband services, which hinders digital literacy skills and creates security risks during outages. Redundant, robust broadband access is a security need.
Unstable, unreliable broadband access affects these people's daily lives. When service goes down, the lack of reliable broadband prevents connection with loved ones, who act as a source of emotional support, and hampers access to resources. Probation officers explained that many of those re-entering society start their post-incarceration cycle with a government-issued cell phone. This limited-in-utility cell phone does not allow for two-factor authentication, which is often a necessity to access governmental assistance programs and job application sites. The affordability of broadband service is the next barrier, given that many recently released individuals are financially constrained when re-entering society, as is a lack of digital skills.
There are 382,603 people (23% of the population) over 60 residing in Kansas. “Aging in place” is a major concern for older adults who reside in areas that currently do not have reliable or quality internet service. In counties with higher populations of citizens aged 60 and older, the ability to access online telehealth and medical services such as telemedicine visits and long-term care monitoring is critical.
A Wichita State University (WSU) survey found that 44.7 percent of older adults in Kansas use the internet for online doctor visits and 74.5 percent spend more than four hours a day online. Yet 28.9 percent do not know where to go for internet help and 10 percent disagree or strongly disagree they know how to use the internet (compared to 5% of the general population). The speed at which devices are changing and upgrading is a challenge for individuals who are not familiar with or native to technology. Aging individuals in rural areas with a lack of broadband infrastructure face isolation, as video chats and communication with loved ones are not always an option.
Individuals with a Language Barrier
Nearly 62,000 individuals in Kansas (2.1% of the population) responded to the Census that they speak English “not well” or “not at all.” Nearly 47 percent of this population does not own a desktop or laptop computer. Access to resources without translation or effective guidance creates an insurmountable challenge for members of this covered population. During a WSU listening session with organizations supporting refugees, staff explained the importance of digital navigators. Without one, a simple application can become an impossible task. Moreover, this obstacle can arise at any stage of the process. If there are issues during equipment installation at the home of a person with a language barrier, the installer may not be able to successfully complete the installation. Thus, providing digital navigation assistance is immensely important to this covered population.
Not all ISPs offer support in signing up for ACP or other affordability programs in languages other than English. This barrier is especially prevalent in refugee populations navigating resettlement. The International Rescue Commission (IRC) explains there are significant barriers because most job applications are only in English or Spanish, whereas IRC’s Wichita service center serves those who speak Swahili, Pashto, Dari, Arabic, and Ukrainian. IRC also mentioned concerns over proper documentation. For instance, without guidance, information about what identification will allow an individual to access ACP can be confusing.
For parents, guardians, school-aged children, and independent youth who speak other languages, navigating online education can be difficult, frustrating, and harmful to the children if not successfully and effectively managed. During the COVID pandemic, families required to participate in school from home without the expertise to troubleshoot online software or equipment had additional hurdles to equitable schooling.
Implementation Strategy and Key Activities
KOBD developed the following implementation strategies and key activities with input gathered from listening sessions, focus groups with members of all covered populations, outreach sessions with state agencies and key organizational partners, and bi-monthly meetings with the Advisory Council.
Strategy 1: Leverage the work of existing partners to enhance the number of digital equity resources throughout the state
Activity: Coordinate state agency support of covered populations
- Work with an inter-agency committee of covered population subject matter experts to make sure external facing services align with existing digital inclusion programs
- Ensure state agency resources are more inclusive and accessible to all Kansans
- Develop a training and communications program to increase awareness and promote ACP and other digital equity affordability programs
- Engage with entrepreneurial-facing resources in the Department of Commerce to reach underrepresented members of covered populations
- Tie existing efforts—like the Community Healthcare Worker program, library initiatives, and other covered population-specific programs, like Revolucion Educativa—into digital navigation skills development
Activity: Create a consolidated funding pool to scale up support
- Create a funding mechanism to promote collaboration between digital equity organizations to expand offerings through funding opportunities that pilot new collaborations from cohort support
- Give these cohorts short, attainable goals leading the coalition to larger funding opportunities after establishing initial benchmarks for ideas like supporting a consortium of tech hubs and initiatives that expand remote-work upskilling
Activity: Fund expansion of existing efforts
- Support existing efforts and work with additional funding, allowing established partners, like the Kansas Library Association (KLA), KC Digital Drive, and Goodwill Industries, to continue to build their footprint with a goal of statewide digital equity services
- Promote the replication of successful models with new partners when appropriate
- Increase awareness, skills, and support about ways to make services more accessible, available, and inclusive
- Utilize Capital Project Fund Digital Connectivity Technology funds to promote broadband access in communities where affordability is a barrier to broadband adoption through the purchase and installation of laptops, tablets, desktop personal computers, and public Wi-Fi equipment
Activity: Create a statewide clearinghouse of digital equity resources
- Establish a collection of software resources accessible to digital equity entities.
- Help ensure these platforms, training, and support are accessible to digital equity organizations with the expertise and infrastructure of partners
- Encourage statewide use of these platforms to provide aggregated and standardized data to inform decision-making, indicate success or improvement opportunities, and provide transparency to stakeholders
Activity: Expand technical capabilities to cover the entire state
- Support the expansion of the Kansas University Center for Telemedicine & Telehealth suite of digital offerings throughout the entire state and request additional support from organizations such as the Kansas Hospital Association and the Medical Society to expand telemedicine access
- Support telemedicine training and information fairs within healthcare facilities in partnership with organizations like AARP
- Support emergency services and navigators for public services, especially in rural areas, by partnering with local nonprofits to deliver virtual training sessions in hard-to-reach communities
Strategy 2: Create sustainable affordability options building on the success of current partners and programs
Activity: Identify and expand digital navigator resources
- Create a Digital Navigator Expansion grant program designed to identify and assess digital navigation programs and navigators committing to beginning or expanding their digital navigation offerings, with cohorts of participating organizations meeting on a regular basis to co-learn, receive guidance, and connect with the growing network of digital navigator programs throughout the state
- Increase KOBD’s awareness of resources to make agency and organization online services more available, accessible, and inclusive to support the work of navigators
- Provide knowledge, training, and support for navigators to ensure familiarity with available services, benefits, and opportunities for civic and social engagement online
Activity: Support ACP outreach efforts
- Support the growing network of organizations performing ACP outreach, including state agencies and FCC ACP Outreach grantees
- Help identify any resources, monitor the improvement in enrollment, and identify areas of the state where resources will be the most effective
Activity: Build a device distribution network
- Build a strong network of device distribution programs that serves the entire state, working with partners to close identified gaps, with leading partners including PCs for People, Digitunity, and others
Activity: Develop a robust and sustainable Kansas affordability program
- Explore the development of a long-term state affordability strategy in the potential absence of long-term funding for ACP through potential activities like:
- Creating a pool of funds comprised of both public and private sources to fund a long-term affordability program for Kansas
- Building on existing affordability programs to create efficiencies, like KC Digital Drive’s Internet Access Support Program that provides pre-paid debit cards for monthly subscription payment
Strategy 3: Establish KOBD’s digital equity division as a repository of information and connections
Activity: Create a digital equity map and dashboard
- Collaborate with partners to create an online digital equity map and dashboard that will help the agency, organizations, and the public to understand progress in closing the digital literacy skills gap
- Help ensure regular updates to the map and dashboard to improve accuracy, keep data current, and add useful new data
Activity: Fund digital navigator training programs
- Fund train-the-trainer programs for organizations that are rapidly expanding their digital navigation systems
- Build a cadre of certified and qualified trainers capable of providing basic device support, guidance for online public services, information on navigating the internet, training for commonly used software, and more
Activity: Convene and connect practitioners
- Act as a convener of resources, bringing together practitioners from across Kansas with intention, including working with local and regional leadership on the integration of digital equity guidance with their broadband efforts
Strategy 4: Engage and educate partners and donors to cultivate long-term investment in digital equity
Activity: Build upon existing work by philanthropic partners
- Strengthen existing relationships with the philanthropic sector to establish digital equity as part of their grant-giving priorities, including the Kansas Community Foundation and others
- Leverage these partnerships to focus on identifying the most impactful programs for covered populations, facilitating and encouraging events, and inspiring action
Activity: Create a consolidated funding pool to scale up support
- Focus investments on strategic projects including scholarship programs, provider-led broadband technician training programs, tech hub network creation, and investment in technology-centric “Career Cluster” exposure programs, particularly to students who are members of the covered populations
Strategy 5: Empower Kansans with in-demand workforce skills so they can thrive wherever they live
Activity: Integrate digital equity with broadband infrastructure planning
- Ensure regional and local broadband planning teams receive information about digital equity needs early in the process of building their own local efforts
- Support local and regional teams in the development of digital equity plans
- Promote Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program -related workforce development programs housed in community colleges and other higher education institutions by encouraging scholarship development, employment matching to covered populations, and collaboration between digital equity partners and their local colleges and other providers
Activity: Promote advanced digital literacy skills programs
- Identify, support, and promote programs that build basic and advanced digital literacy skills for high-demand workforce careers, maximizing access for members of the covered populations to technology-forward programs in higher education institutions and technology skills programs in communities like Future Leaders Outreach Network, Youth Entrepreneurship Exchange, Lead for America Fellows program, and others
- Help expand technology-centric “Career Cluster” efforts for K-12 students in school districts where programs have lagged behind in the past, paying particular attention to areas with historic underinvestment
Activity: Align statewide cybersecurity efforts
- Align existing efforts on cybersecurity with OITS, the universities, KBOR, and others to ensure there is a continued evolution of and learning about cybersecurity issues
Kansas Wants to Hear From You
Public comments on Kansas's draft plan can be submitted using either their English, Spanish, or Vietnamese comment portals until November 2, 2023. These can all be found on the Kansas Office of Broadband Development website.
- FCC Announces November 2023 Open Meeting Agenda
- FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel Unveils 'Safe Connections' for Domestic Violence Survivors
- BEAD program stirs debate as states navigate high-cost threshold
- States Sue Meta Alleging Harm to Young People on Instagram, Facebook
- Who is Mike Johnson? An ardent conservative who embraces far-right policies
Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
- FCC Fact Sheet: Preventing Digital Discrimination
- White House Calls on Congress to Support ACP Funding
- Letter Regarding Critical National Security Funding Needs for Fiscal Year 2024
- FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel's Remarks at 41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture
- Good and Bad Reasons for Allocating Spectrum to Licensed, Unlicensed, Shared, and Satellite Uses
ICYMI from Benton
- South Dakota's Plan to Leverage Digital Equity to Reach Economic Goals
- Aloha Spirit Inspires Hawai'i Digital Equity Plan
- Broadband, Social Justice, and the Future of Universal Connectivity
- The Plan for Closing Nevada’s Digital Divide
- Wisconsin's Digital Equity Values
- Here's Your New FCC
Oct 29––The CyberShare Summit (NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association)
Oct 30––Alerting Security Roundtable (FCC)
Oct 30––Tribal Business of Broadband (Institute for Local Self-Reliance)
Oct 31––The Future of Private Networks (New America)
Nov 1––Truth, Trust, and Democracy: Leadership in the Information Ecosystem (Shorenstein Center)
Nov 2-3––Michigan Broadband Summit (Merit Network)
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