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Tucson Coalition Builds Around Broadband Need, Digital Equity

Tucson Connected, a public-private partnership, hopes to combine the digital inclusion efforts at play across the region to connect a range of stakeholders to the subsidies and all residents to more equitable Internet.

Tucson Arizona skyline
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
Tucson Connected, a public-private partnership in Arizona, aims to link the digital inclusion efforts of several entities in a unified effort to reach residents.

The project, which launched in fall of 2021, is meant to unify a number of entities with a stake in increasing regional digital equity and address the barriers impeding Internet adoption. The coalition’s primary focus will be identifying barriers and connecting stakeholders to available subsidies.

Local governments have been making digital equity more of a priority since the onset of COVID-19, and many experts believe partnerships are the critical piece to closing the divide. Coalitions across the country, like Oakland, Calif.’s Town Link program, are working to do just that.

The Tucson Connected partnership includes over 20 entities, led by Cox Communications. Other entities include the city of Tucson, Pima County, Comcast (Xfinity), San Miguel High School and Boys & Girls Clubs.

As Cox Communications Director of Public Affairs Stephanie Healy explained, though, it is not one provider’s solution, but rather a collaborative with some “coopetition” with other providers, like Comcast, that will make this successful.

Michelle Simon, deputy director of support services at Pima County Public Library, explained that Tucson Connected was started because of the 2021 Emergency Broadband Benefit program — which ended and has been replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

While many organizations are working to connect people to the subsidies that are available and advance other digital equity work, Simon said that Tucson Connected is a way to pull these siloed endeavors together for a cohesive effort.

“One of the foundational services that libraries provide is access to technology, and Internet, and the devices to use in order to be able to connect to our world,” Simon explained.

The library has hot spots available to rent, but in addition, the library is working with Cox Communications and the city of Tucson to gather information about community organizations and how to expand this connectivity. This spring, the library expects to turn on about 85 hot spots across the community — at parks, Boys & Girls Clubs and more.

The library will use Emergency Connectivity Funding that was available through the American Rescue Plan Act for the hot spot distribution in the community, she said.

Simon also noted that library staff have expertise in teaching people how to use computers and helping organizations understand this type of application.

In addition to these efforts, the county launched a task force that created a strategic broadband plan last year. Simon is a co-chair of the task force, along with county CIO Dan Hunt. While this effort was created separately from the Tucson Connected initiative, they have since come together in some ways, as both are working to achieve similar goals.

Tucson Connected, she said, is all about getting people together to figure out what needs to be done. And to help all community members — for example, those that don’t speak English — community organizations are a central piece of this equation.

In spite of these efforts, some barriers still remain. Simon explained that while those in the middle of the city of Tucson may have the infrastructure but lack affordability to get connected, those in rural areas may still lack that access altogether. And residents’ needs vary greatly, as the barriers to adoption for a college student and a senior would be vastly different, noted Healy.

Healy explained that the outreach campaign component, which involved working with community organizations, has proved critical to achieving adoption.

Cox Communications Southern Arizona market leader Lisa Lovallo explained that the pandemic made it increasingly evident that communities needed to do a better job of publicizing affordable programs and government subsidies that could help grow broadband access.

The goal of this effort is to use the historical amount of resources currently available from federal revenue sources to get as many people in the community Internet access as possible, removing barriers to business, telehealth and other services, Lovallo said.

One way to get more people involved is framing the effort around the understanding that a connected community is an economic driver to increase involvement in spaces like education and the workforce, Simon stated.

“This is one of those pivotal moments in history where you will be able to go back and say, ‘That made the difference in how we function in our society today,’” Simon said. “And how cities and counties and states decide to use that money is going to be very important for the economic development going forward, as well.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.