South Dakota's Plan to Leverage Digital Equity to Reach Economic Goals

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, October 23, 2023

Digital Beat

South Dakota's Plan to Leverage Digital Equity to Reach Economic Goals

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.

A broad framework for how to get South Dakota from where it stands to a digitally empowered future

The South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED), in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation (DLR), seeks public comments on the state's draft Digital Opportunity PlanThis Digital Opportunity Plan (also referred to as the DO Plan) outlines a path for the state to achieve its full potential through the powerful force of an internet-enabled workforce, government, and society.

For South Dakota, the key to achieving digital opportunity for all is through identifying the barriers and opportunities in three areas: 1) access to affordable, reliable broadband technology, 2) access to affordable devices, and 3) resources to learn digital skills. The DO plan provides the broad framework for how to get South Dakota from where it stands to a digitally empowered future. Through the DO Plan, South Dakota strives for a comprehensive framework to bridge the gap between the availability and adoption of broadband.

The DO Plan serves as an inclusive vision for bridging the digital divide, with the explicit aim of working towards South Dakota’s broader economic goals. The state recognizes that empowering its residents with 21st-century technologies and skills is crucial to preserving South Dakotans' way of life and allowing small towns to thrive. South Dakota will maximize and optimize the funding that will be made available to it under the Digital Equity Act, using this plan as its roadmap.

South Dakota's vision of digital equity is to ensure every citizen will have access to affordable, future-proof, high-speed internet, along with the means to utilize it safely and competently.

South Dakota has developed a set of objectives to further its vision for digital opportunity.

Objective 1: Improve access to and adoption of affordable high-speed internet

Objective 2: Enhance accessibility of public services online

Objective 3: Increase access to digital skills curriculums

Objective 4: Expand access to computing devices for accessing the internet

The Digital Divide in South Dakota

Eighty-two percent of the South Dakota population belongs to at least one “covered population.” The state’s large rural population is one of the leading drivers of the high percentage of covered populations in South Dakota. A portion of the rural populations also overlap with the 19 percent of the state’s racial/ethnic minorities, including Native Americans living in and around Tribal lands, as well as Black, Asian, and Hispanic populations located in and around large cities and job centers. A quarter of the population is comprised of households with earnings at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and another quarter is comprised of individuals 60 years or older. South Dakota also has populations of individuals with disabilities (12%), low literacy (14%), veterans (8%), and a small proportion of incarcerated individuals (0.4%). These groups are not mutually exclusive and may have overlaps.

The Access Divide

While previously unconnected parts of South Dakota now have access to high-speed broadband, there remain regions in remote and rural counties where cost of infrastructure is high, thus these areas are served by low-speed fixed broadband internet, if at all. Covered populations most affected by this barrier include those residing in rural areas, those belonging to racial/ethnic minorities, individuals living in households with incomes under 150 percent of the federal poverty guidance, and individuals with disabilities.

The Affordability Gap

The cost of high-speed broadband subscriptions can be a barrier to digital access. Covered populations most affected by this barrier are individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidance, aging persons, individuals with disabilities, those belonging to racial/ethnic minorities, and individuals in rural areas.

Publicly available broadband plan pricing for major South Dakota internet service providers (ISPs) starts from $39 and goes as high as $115 for download speeds of 100 Mbps or more. Prices of broadband plans in the state are higher than what a portion of the population is willing to pay. According to the South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications (BIT) GIS mapping of provider coverage, 64 ISPs are currently providing or, in the future, will provide fiber-to-the-premises. For the ISPs with price points listed on their websites, the average price of a 100 Mbps connection was ~$70, which is higher than the national average of ~$65. Households that cannot afford these prices need assistance to connect to high-speed internet. The Affordable Connectivity Program is the primary resource to promote affordability in South Dakota. However, projections estimate that the program will run out of funding by the middle of 2024. Without continuation of this or a similar program, the gap in bridging this need is expected to remain and possibly increase.

Cost as a barrier to obtaining subscriptions to high-speed internet in low-income households was echoed across many stakeholders. Conversations with larger ISPs in the state support the idea that part of the reason many households have not yet subscribed to broadband is because of high costs. One ISP said that the demand for broadband was more sensitive to price changes in urban communities, possibly because of a higher proportion of low-income populations. An organization facilitating access to public housing reported cost as the major barrier to families living in public housing.

The Awareness Gap

Households that may be eligible for federal subsidy programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) for broadband subscriptions and devices, free resources for digital literacy, internet safety, etc. may not always be aware of the existence of these programs. Without the necessary information to access these resources, they are unable to take advantage of available benefits. This challenge primarily affects individuals who are low-income. However, stakeholders highlighted lack of awareness as a barrier for the populations they were representing that are also low-income.

User-Friendly Interfaces

Every citizen needs to interface with government entities, either at the local, state, or federal level to conduct personal and business activities. While many government programs have online resources, multiple stakeholders have shared that the online interfaces could be more user-friendly, particularly for necessary services that impact South Dakotans with the highest needs. All covered populations are impacted by this barrier in some way.

Many services are intended or required for individuals who are low-income, aging, formerly incarcerated, have disabilities, veterans, or those belonging to and living on Tribal lands. Currently, key application forms such as those for unemployment assistance, workforce programming, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid are available online. However, representatives working with these covered populations identified the following barriers that prevent individuals from participating in programs intended to benefit them.

  • Skills needed are not transferrable between forms, platforms, sites, etc.
  • Intuitive features such as drag-and-drop for uploading files are not universally available
  • Information needed for each application may be repetitive
  • All websites may not be configured for mobile devices
  • Sign-in processes are complicated and not universal
  • Multiple application portals exist for multiple services/benefits
  • Digital navigation to provide support for people using online forms on their devices is not universally available

Regulatory Limitations to Access

While state-implemented regulations are necessary, they can result in unforeseen challenges. This is particularly true for incarcerated individuals in South Dakota. The necessary security system within a prison limits interactions with many outside resources, including the internet. This has implications on an individual’s digital literacy and adoption, both while incarcerated, as well as upon re-entry.

Due to the fast pace of technological innovations, those recently released or on parole are entering a world where the devices and tools have dramatically changed compared to when they first entered the prison system. A representative working with incarcerated individuals noted that one individual had been incarcerated many years while laptops became more common, and therefore, having only used a mouse, needed support to use a trackpad.

Staffing Supportive Services

One way to promote digital literacy and internet safety skills is to have staff within public service organizations to aid individuals when they have a need. Throughout stakeholder conversations, many entities—including state agencies and non-profit organizations working with all covered populations—expressed a desire to offer additional digital support. However, stakeholders suggested that existing staff are already working at full capacity without the ability to take on additional roles or may not have the skills set to provide digital navigation services. In addition, grant resources are limited and have goals beyond digital assistance.

The Cost of Devices

The cost of devices needed to access the internet can be prohibitively high. Above and beyond the initial purchase of the device, there are ongoing costs to maintain these devices. In addition, the rapid pace of technological innovation leads to outdated devices, increasing security concerns. This is a challenge for both covered populations, as well as state agencies and non-profit organizations.

While covered populations are those who are most in need, the cost associated with having access to devices continues to leave these populations further behind. Covered populations most affected by this barrier include aging individuals, veterans, individuals with disabilities, low-income individuals, and incarcerated persons. Organizations representing the above populations shared that many members of their communities struggle to purchase the devices they need to access the internet. Nine percent of all households in the state do not have any devices to access the internet, while 8 percent have only a smartphone. Even though 92 percent of all households in the state have access to at least one computing device, access to a desktop or laptop remains relatively lower at 77 percent.

While working off limited budgets and grants, state agencies and non-profit organizations designed to help covered populations struggle to maintain and modernize their devices, impacting the quality of modernized services to customers.

Organizations representing disabled persons said that not only do their members require devices such as smartphones and computers, but they also need assistive, adaptive technology to be able to fully utilize the devices. While the cost of a device alone is expensive, adding assistive technology eliminates these devices as an option. While some programs do exist to provide these devices to those who need them, they do not meet every person’s needs. Furthermore, stakeholder discussions highlighted that the cost is particularly prohibitive for individuals who do not meet the income requirements for subsidy programs by a slim margin. Without such devices, many individuals are unable to fully participate in society.

An organization representing incarcerated persons said that when their members are experiencing re-entry, they are unable to afford smartphones and related cell phone connections that have become essential in today’s world. For example, upon release from the prison system, one must provide contact information which typically includes a phone number and email. When someone has been incarcerated for several years, they may not only not have access to devices, but they may also not have the skills needed to find and use suitable devices. As landlines have started being phased out, cell phones and email have become a greater necessity. The inability to afford internet-capable devices limits one’s ability to be successful upon re-entry.

Digital Literacy Gap

The lack of digital literacy is a barrier for individuals who have access to internet connections and devices that limits their ability to use them in a meaningful way. Since internet technologies are relatively new and constantly evolving, many find themselves ill-equipped to take full advantage of online services. All covered populations are affected by this barrier. The lack of digital literacy as a barrier to digital opportunity was identified by several organizations representing the eight covered populations:

Digital literacy was mentioned as a particular challenge for individuals who have lower literacy levels and/or language barriers. It can be especially difficult for these individuals to pick up on digital literacy skills and navigate the digital world.

Some organizations said the absence of digital literacy was felt within their respective communities, especially among older generations of South Dakota citizens. An organization representing veterans said that the older members of the community who lived with younger family members were still able to learn digital skills within their households, however, others felt this barrier may be experienced by people of all ages. Those who lived on their own struggled to access resources online without the assistance of digital navigators.

An organization that oversees public housing in the state shared that the lack of digital literacy and the unwillingness to engage in any online activity can be detrimental to persons with disabilities and those who are older. Members of these communities have trouble filling out the necessary forms online and may have to rely on help over the phone or other means.

Incarcerated persons frequently exit the prison system without the digital literacy skills to support successful re-entry. These individuals often miss the natural progression of technology development. Digital literacy is a major challenge for those belonging to this covered population.

Internet Safety

Incidents of online scams, phishing attacks, and identity theft cases create mistrust among users of technology, even working to discourage non-users from ever adopting the use of the internet. Without the knowledge to safely engage with the internet, some choose not to engage at all. The covered populations most affected by this barrier are aging persons and persons with low literacy and/or language barriers. Governor Kristi Noem (R-SD) has prioritized developing Cybersecurity as a leading industry not only to create employment opportunities but also to help fight against online fraud. However, on an individual level, there is a lack of availability of internet safety trainings and curriculums.

Reluctance to Adopt

In areas where high-speed broadband infrastructure is possible, personal feelings and reluctance to adopt internet can be a barrier. This reluctance may be expressed as aversion towards the infrastructure itself, obtaining an internet subscription, or engaging with the internet. Although reluctance may exist across all covered populations, individuals most identified as displaying this sentiment were those who are aging and those living in rural areas.

Particularly in rural areas, some ISPs experienced hesitancy from households to allow service lines to their residence. Some individuals choose to live in or visit certain parts of South Dakota specifically to get “off the grid.”

Although the cost can be offset through programs like the ACP, some households do not want to be connected to broadband even if it results in no added cost to them.

For individuals seeking a technology-free lifestyle, digital opportunity can be thought of as making the option accessible if they ever change their minds. However, digital opportunity can be approached differently when there are other underlying factors. Some discussions with community organizations suggested there may be a lack of awareness around the benefits of having and engaging with high-speed, future-proof internet. An ISP shared that some households have refused upgrades to their internet service.

ConnectSD logoProposed Activities

Here's how South Dakota proposes to achieve digital equity.

Objective 1: Improve access to and adoption of affordable high-speed internet

Strategy 1.1: Subsidize infrastructure deployment in unserved and underserved communities

  • To overcome the hurdle of access to reliable, high-speed internet, South Dakota intends to continue building out infrastructure to expand availability. This activity is expected to be primarily funded through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which is supplementing South Dakota’s ongoing investments through the ConnectSD program.

Strategy 1.2: Improve access to affordable internet

  • Expand Capacity to Provide Digital Navigation
  • Conduct ACP Enrollment Events
  • Train staff of State agencies that work with covered populations about the eligibility and application process for ACP

Strategy 1.3: Increase awareness of the benefits related to internet adoption

  • Partnering with community organizations to issue targeted advertisements can help promote the benefits of high-speed internet, how to safely be online, and publicize available digital programs.
  • Educational workshops can explain how the internet works, what one can do using it, and how to connect—educational workshops can go a long way in building trust within such communities. This may be carried out in partnership with community organizations that work with covered populations, but also by other organizations such as ISPs, who may have existing channels of communication with households.
  • As a unifying governance body, the State would like to support other regions and communities in building digital equity coalitions comprised of partners from government, business, and non-profits.

Objective 2: Enhance accessibility of public services online

Strategy 2.1 Improve online services interface

  • To promote online accessibility, South Dakota is interested in making sure that services utilized by all populations are more user-friendly. This includes supporting enhancements to some of the State’s online services to improve usability and increase satisfaction with the user’s experience and align closer to the American Disabilities Act guidance on web accessibility.

Strategy 2.2 Increase awareness of MySD Digital Citizen portal

  • South Dakota’s recently launched Digital Citizen Portal SD.Gov has begun offering a single sign-on (SSO) platform to access public services online. An awareness campaign can help a lot of citizens to access essential services without traveling long distances. The portal is also an improvement over older websites that may have been more difficult to use. Simple PSAs with how-to guides on using the portal can familiarize South Dakotans with the new portal.

Objective 3: Increase access to digital skills curriculums

Strategy 3.1 Increase access to digital literacy and internet safety curriculums and training sessions

  • Digital Literacy Training for the Incarcerated: A partnership with the South Dakota Department of Corrections will be required to deploy digital literacy and digital safety curriculum for members of the population that are incarcerated.
  • South Dakota is interested in purchasing and deploying an established curriculum that allows self-paced and instructor-led trainings on digital literacy and internet safety. South Dakota intends to deploy such programming in partnership with libraries, workforce development agencies, and community organizations that serve one or more covered populations.
  • Enrollment in a formal program may not be feasible for everyone who needs support with digital literacy and internet safety. Informal community events are another way to promote digital literacy and internet safety skills for various populations.

Objective 4: Expand access to computing devices for accessing the internet

Strategy 4.1 Expand access to public-use devices

  • South Dakota is considering purchasing additional computing devices, either new or refurbished, to increase the availability of public use devices. These devices would be available to public through internal and external partners.
  • South Dakota may support expansion of device programs by purchasing new or refurbished computing devices and Wi-Fi hotspot devices and working with partner organizations to administer a device loaner program.

Strategy 4.2 Make low-cost or free devices available for distribution

  • South Dakota is interested in purchasing new or refurbished computing devices that can be distributed to those in need. Partnerships with community organizations that serve one or more covered populations can help reach the communities that such a program would be intended to serve.

South Dakota Wants to Hear From You

The South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development is accepting public comment on the draft plan through October 31, 2023. Comments may be submitted via U.S. mail or an online form.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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