In a New York State of Digital Equity

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Digital Beat

In a New York State of Digital Equity

In November 2023, the Empire State Development’s ConnectALL Office released the draft New York State Digital Equity Plan and sought public comment on how New York will bridge the digital divide in the state. The draft presents the findings from an statewide assessment of the assets and barriers to the adoption and use of internet service and the strategies the ConnectALL Office will use for federal digital equity funding when that is made available to New York in 2024. The public comment window closes on December 6.

New York's Vision of Digital Equity

Governor Kathy Hochul (D-NY) established the ConnectALL Office (CAO) in 2022 to transform New York State’s digital infrastructure so all residents and businesses have access to high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband for education, economic growth, and full participation in civic life.  

This vision is pursuant to the principles also articulated by the New York State Legislature in the 2022 Working to Implement Reliable and Equitable Deployment of Broadband Act (WIRED Broadband Act), which declares that: 

  • Access to high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband is essential for education, economic growth, and full participation in civic life;
  • The persistence of the digital divide is a key barrier to improving the general welfare;
  • The digital divide disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, rural areas, and other vulnerable populations, and the benefits of broadband access should be available to all;  
  • A robust and competitive internet marketplace in New York supports general economic development and benefits New Yorkers with improved internet service and affordability; and
  • The State has a shared responsibility to assist in ending the digital divide, supporting a more robust and competitive internet marketplace, and carrying out other actions to ensure universal access to high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband.

The WIRED Broadband Act mandates CAO to take actions to “assist in ending the digital divide, supporting a more robust and competitive internet marketplace, and carrying out other actions to ensure universal access to high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband.”

CAO will also take actions to promote the general welfare as it relates to the benefits of broadband access across the following outcome areas: 

  1. Advancement of economic and workforce development goals, plans, and initiatives;  
  2. Improvement in the quality and accessibility of educational resources;  
  3. Improvements in access to and delivery of health services;
  4. Increased civic and social engagement; and
  5. Delivery of accessible, navigable public resources. 

CAO has committed to making at least $50 million in digital equity investments—a sum that must stretch across geography (the entire state), populations (all of New York’s 20 million people), and time (at least five years). 

CAO’s theory of change is driven by the need to identify multipliers that can amplify and sustain any financial investments it makes, especially upstream and downstream from the physical infrastructure built via the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program; the Department of Treasury Capital Projects Fund; and New York State broadband investments. This theory of change is also responsive to the goals that stakeholders communicated during CAO’s planning process, including:  

  • Supporting existing organizations who have already built trust with communities and covered populations.
  • Building the capacity of these organizations and the people they serve to design their own solutions to promote digital equity.
  • Coordinating existing resources and efforts in government to build strategic redundancies and ensuring those best situated to solve a certain dimension of the digital divide can embrace their strategic advantages.
  • Continuing to innovate, which is required to bridge the digital divide in New York once and for all.

New York's Digital Divide

New York State is home to a diverse population with uneven experiences accessing and using the internet. 

Of the state's 7.5 million households, 87 percent have some type of broadband internet service. The median household spends $80/month. Nearly 30 percent of households making under $35,000/year do not have internet while 13 percent of households earning $35,000 to 75,000/year do not have internet, and only 4 percent of households earning over $75,000/year do not have internet.

Forty-five percent of New York's residents (8.7 million people) are racial and ethnic minorities, 26 percent (5.1 million people) are individuals with language barriers, 23 percent are aging individuals, 21 percent live in low-income households, 20 percent live in rural areas, 12 percent are individuals with disabilities, and 4 percent are veterans.

As part of the Needs Assessment included in the State Digital Equity plan, the ConnectALL Office processed New York State Internet Access Survey responses by region to produce reports, or “snapshots,” capturing broadband and digital equity findings in the ten distinct regional geographies of New York State: Capital Region, Central New York, Finger Lakes, Long Island, Mid-Hudson, Mohawk Valley, North Country, Southern Tier, and Western New York. Each of New York City’s five boroughs—the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island—also has a separate snapshot.  

Each snapshot contains the following information:

  • Demographic information from the region to help compare regional covered populations to the broader composition of the state.  
  • Selected Survey data across five broadband and digital equity areas: Broadband Affordability & Availability, Accessibility of Devices & Device Support, Digital Literacy, Privacy & Cybersecurity, and the Accessibility & Inclusivity of Public Resources.  
  • Significant findings from focus groups, where applicable, to provide nuance and further depth on challenges affecting covered populations in specific regions. 

Strategy and Objectives

CAO will pursue activities in line with the four strategic pillars outlined below. Together, these strategic pillars will allow CAO to prioritize and streamline activities in pursuit of its mission, even as one-time funding is deployed. 

1. Grounding Investments in an Asset-Based Approach  

  • Rather than starting from deficits, CAO will seek to build the capacity of community-rooted and trusted digital equity organizations over the long term.  
  • CAO will do this by filling in gaps, strengthening, and scaling what is working well across existing assets, creating new assets only where necessary. CAO will also make structural changes to increase access to these assets.  

CAO will explore methods to execute this strategy including:  

  • Invest in physical and digital accessibility across New York’s public library system. As highlighted throughout the draft plan, libraries are a key partner in New York's fight to close the digital divide, so their buildings and websites need to be accessible to all covered populations for CAO to effectively partner with them in identifying and scaling programs as part of the Capacity Grant Program.  
  • Consider allocating a portion of capacity grant resources toward the creation of a participatory budgeted and governed fund so local digital equity and lived experts can steward capacity grant funding as they see fit. This will also support Strategy 3 (below), in solidifying trust between CAO and the public.

2. Strengthening networks to share resources and take coordinated action

  • CAO will invest in ensuring that digital equity organizations and service providers and the communities they serve are independently connected, collaborating, and sharing knowledge, which will ensure the long-term sustainability of digital equity efforts beyond the life of the federal funding currently available.  
  • Organizations, service providers, and community members in organized networks will power civic engagement on digital equity issues (and, ideally, on a suite of social issues) in New York. Advocacy, community organizing, and campaigns are strengthened by the ability to identify points of solidarity, mobilize collective action, and increase participation in democratic processes—both online and offline. 

CAO will explore methods to execute this strategy including:  

  • Continuing to support the capacity and sustainability of regional Digital Equity Coalitions (DECs) that coordinate efforts across the government, nonprofit, private, and education sectors to end the digital divide. CAO aims to ensure coalition longevity and growth as key anchors in the state’s ecosystem, as by facilitating knowledge-sharing and partnership among coalitions and convening them semi-frequently to strengthen their connections.  
  • Integrating alternative approaches into the traditional digital equity toolkit or transitioning existing models where appropriate, including base-building, community-organizing, and community ownership and stewardship models. These approaches can serve as a launchpad for communities to self-determine their internet and infrastructure futures. This will also support Strategies 3 and 4 by promoting wider public education across digital equity issues and beyond and potentially generating novel approaches to ending the digital divide, respectively. 

3. Building Alignment & Awareness

  • CAO will aim to organize expertise and resources across the field and government (at the state, regional, county, and municipal levels) to advance digital equity policy innovation and standard-setting across social programs.  
  • CAO will also promote standout programs to the public to broaden awareness and adoption of best practices; inherent in this effort is the need to build, deepen, and in some cases repair trust between government and the communities it serves.  
  • By aligning the force of the government behind insights from the field and making government efforts more known to the public, CAO can create a virtuous circle whereby the best practices identified through our asset-based approaches and network development are mutually reinforced by all stakeholders and can have greater impact through wider audiences. 

CAO will explore methods to execute this strategy including:  

  • Further developing the Digital Equity Task Force (DETF) infrastructure, which was crucial during the ConnectALL planning process. DETF brings to bear a diversity of expertise—from government and digital equity practitioners and experts across the state who serve covered populations—on digital equity issues; expanding the mission to include implementation, policy development, and performance measurement functions going forward will continue to amplify CAO’s reach and impact.  
  • Creating and maintaining a publicly available online asset inventory that functions as a statewide digital equity services directory. This also furthers Strategies 2 and 4, by cataloguing unconventional programs and services under a digital equity umbrella and elevating best practices in a transparent and accessible format, respectively.  
  • Coordinating public education campaigns on an ongoing basis across digital equity issues that are critical to CAO achieving its mission. These are distinct but would ideally complement the grassroots campaigns of Strategy 2. 

4. Sharpening & Socializing our Digital Equity Lens

  • Because the digital divide is ever-evolving, CAO will incubate new approaches to persistent challenges, measure its own impact and the work of others, and publish its findings. 

CAO will explore methods to execute this strategy including:  

  • Creating and resourcing communities of practice across outcome areas to facilitate joint problem-solving and participatory program design. These structures would support CAO’s grants management and communications efforts through the implementation process and further Strategy 2 by building another kind of network of engaged stakeholders.  
  • Releasing data CAO collects publicly as a mechanism for transparency and accountability, supporting Strategies 2 and 3 by allowing communities to independently understand and act on the data, respectively. 

Tracking Progress

ConnectALL has prioritized measurable objectives based on New Yorkers’ broadband needs and tied the objectives to activities that further each pillar of its strategy.

1. Broadband Affordability & Availability 

Identified Need A: Covered populations—especially rural communities—report lower rates of access to broadband internet connection. Those living in rural areas, especially individuals with language barriers, veterans, and low-income households, also experience slower speeds and unreliable connections. 

Measurable Objective: Increase the number of households statewide that report broadband internet connection at home.

  • Refer to survey data on broadband access and program data on delivery of infrastructure. 
  • Audit grant awardees to ensure that buildout, availability, and speed commitments are met. 

Identified Need B: New Yorkers are concerned about a lack of choice among ISPs, leading to lower-quality of service at higher prices. 

Measurable Objective: Increase the share of locations in each region that have more than one ISP option.

  • Refer to published data on the number of ISPs operating in each region.
  • Monitor delivery of programs for cases where choice and competition are increased.

Identified Need C: New Yorkers with bundled services that combine internet with other media are generally exposed to greater price volatility and higher prices. 

Measurable Objective: Increase the share of locations in each region that have options for unbundled, affordable broadband service. 

  • Audit ISPs to ensure commitments regarding pricing transparency and unbundled service for consumers are met.
  • Refer to survey data on consumer take-up of bundled and unbundled services. 

Identified Need D: Eligible New Yorkers are not aware of the ACP subsidy, and some New Yorkers who are aware of the ACP subsidy cannot or do not use it. 

Measurable Objective: Increase awareness and adoption of internet affordability programs. 

  • Monitor data on ACP eligibility and enrollments. 

2. Accessible Device & Device Support

Identified Need A: New Yorkers—especially low-income households, individuals with disabilities, individuals with language barriers, and racial/ethnic minorities—struggle to afford internet-enabled devices at home. 

Measurable Objective: Increase the number of New York households that have internet-enabled devices at home. 

  • Refer to survey data on access to devices.
  • Require sub-grantees to report on the number and types of devices distributed to New Yorkers as well as methods of procurement (e.g., refurbished or new devices) and plans for recycling.  

Identified Need B: Aging individuals, veterans, and individuals with disabilities need specialized assistive devices to effectively use the internet. 

Measurable Objective: Increase access to assistive technology that meet the needs of people with disabilities. 

  • Require sub-grantees to report on the number and type of assistive technology devices distributed to people with disabilities. 

Identified Need C: New Yorkers that already have devices, and those that receive or borrow new or refurbished devices from existing assets, lack easily accessible technical support to maintain the devices and troubleshoot challenges.

Measurable Objective: Decrease the number of New Yorkers reporting challenges maintaining or troubleshooting their own devices. 

  • Refer to survey data on New Yorkers’ access to technical support and troubleshooting. 

Identified Need D: More New Yorkers having devices at home corresponds to a need for device upgrading, disposal, recycling, and refurbishment in the future to ensure that New Yorkers’ digital needs are met as technology evolves, while protecting their privacy and the environment.

Measurable Objective: Increase options for proper device disposal, recycling, and refurbishment. 

  • Regularly update the State’s Digital Equity Asset Inventory to measure the availability of device disposal, recycling, and refurbishment options.
  • Require sub-grantees to report on their delivery of options for device disposal, recycling, and refurbishment. 

3. Digital Literacy

Identified Need A: Covered populations—particularly aging individuals, incarcerated individuals, individuals with language barriers, individuals with disabilities, and low-income households—report lower confidence across all digital literacy skills. New Yorkers are also prevented from (re)joining the labor force because of their lack of digital literacy. 

Measurable Objective: Increase New Yorkers’ awareness of available digital literacy programs.

  • Collect reports from partners on program usage, especially among covered populations.
  • Evaluate outreach effort effects on program attendance to ensure that effective strategies are being used to increase awareness. 

Identified Need B: New York’s small business owners are unable to grow their businesses because of a lack of digital literacy. Rural and aging New Yorkers distrust telehealth services that could improve their health outcomes. 

Measurable Objective: Increase covered populations’ access to digital literacy programming aligned to their specific needs and interests. 

  • Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of digital literacy programming, including by surveying the communities they serve.
  • Measure traffic to directories and resources that the State publishes to ensure New Yorkers are accessing them and develop strategies to increase awareness. 

Identified Need C: Inconsistencies across existing curricula and a lack of alignment with industry-desired credentials reduces the potential impact of digital literacy programming. 

Measurable Objective: Increase coordination among training providers. 

  • Measure and report on the availability of educational programs adhering to the standardized credentials valued by industry. Develop strategies for increasing credential rates among training providers. 

4. Privacy & Cybersecurity 

Identified Need A: Most New Yorkers are concerned about their online safety. Covered populations reported universal concern over stolen data, scams, and surveillance. Individuals with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and youth were more likely to report concern over online harassment than other New Yorkers.

Measurable Objective: Increase the number of assets providing Privacy & Cybersecurity training to New Yorkers.  

  • Measure enrollment in and attendance to cybersecurity-oriented programming to assess the effectiveness of outreach. 

5. Accessibility & Inclusivity of Public Resources 

Identified Need A: Covered populations frequently cited inconsistent accessibility standards as a primary frustration in engaging with government resources online. 

Measurable Objective: Collaborate on the design and implementation of universal accessibility standards across State government websites.

  • Continue to survey the public on experiences with and opinions on the accessibility of government websites and services.
  • Measure enrollment in and the attendance of programming concerning accessing  public resources.
  • Evaluate government websites to ensure that accessibility changes are made and maintained as required. 

Identified Need B: Covered populations reported a lack of trust, rather than access, as the primary reason they were less likely to access government services online. 

Measurable Objective: Develop outreach campaigns to increase covered populations’ trust in online government services. 

  • Continue to survey the public on experiences with accessing public resources.

ConnectALL Office Seeks Feedback

Empire State Development’s ConnectALL Office is seeking public comment on the draft State Digital Equity Plan through December 6, 2023. To submit public comment on the plan, use this online form. ConnectALL will consider all comments to include in the final State Digital Equity Plan that is submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

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Kevin Taglang

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