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Washington State Bill Tackles Digital Equity Divide

State lawmakers propose addressing digital equity divide issues through a new bill that increases accessibility to different services, training and devices. The legislation awaits the governor’s signature.

Washington State Capitol
A bill has made it to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk that would boost the accessibility of telecommunications services, devices and training to increase digital equity within the state.

The Washington State Department of Commerce has already taken on several digital equity activities, including the creation of a new Office of Digital Equity. These efforts aim to help the 45 percent of Washingtonians who don’t have Internet access or who have to use download speeds of less than 10 megabits per second.

The new legislation awaiting Inlee’s signature would codify all statewide digital divide and broadband efforts.

For example, the first requirement outlined in the legislation would have the state’s broadband office work with fellow organizations to flesh out the state’s digital equity plan. These organizations include the Digital Equity Forum, Utilities and Transportation Commission and Department of Social and Health Services.

The bill would then require the broadband office to oversee funding to develop and implement the plan.

However, that’s not to say the state hasn’t allocated funds to these areas.

According to Digital Equity Manager Ernie Rasmussen, before the pandemic the Department of Commerce earmarked $7.5 million from the Legislature to set up a statewide digital navigators program.

The program uses navigators to “provide technical assistance and expertise in Internet connectivity and devices and the digital skills to use them,” according to the Washington State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises website.

More specifically, “digital navigator services, devices and subscriptions must involve one-on-one assistance for people with limited access to services, including individuals seeking work, families supporting students, English language learners, people experiencing poverty, senior citizens and Medicaid recipients,” the website states.

Outside of the navigator program, bill co-sponsor Rep. Jamila Taylor said other grass-roots efforts are currently underway to reach out to different communities.

“The bill works in concert with other resources that bring things to the table, like budget provisos, working with the office of equity and executive order 2204,” Taylor said. “From there, we started asking questions like how do we engage with folks?”

Inspired by that question, she said, grass-roots efforts utilizing video conferencing technology like Zoom have significantly impacted local communities, as the tech has allowed the state to “hear from more people and more often.” Taylor pointed out, though, that it’s essential for Washington to also take its effort “to the streets” by partnering with community organizations.

However, there might be some challenges in achieving this goal, like creating a new system that is accessible to multiple cultures.

“It’s creating a whole new system. When you are talking about technology and digital equity, you’re talking about an industry that has been very white-led,” Taylor explained. “How do we bridge that gap between leadership in different communities and leadership in technology and government?”

Other issues such as dead capital, distance and relatively small population centers also pose significant challenges, according to incoming Broadband Office Director Mark Vasconi, who worked for AT&T in Alaska for over 10 years, according to a press release.

Despite Alaska’s and Washington’s different landscapes and needs, Vasconi said, the challenges remain somewhat the same.

“Deployed capital is really dead capital unless there’s training to bring some sense of digital literacy within the customer set or the community you’re trying to serve,” Vasconi said. “Without those things, the capital you’ve deployed won’t reach the kind of power it offers.”

As for distance and small population centers, Vasconi said it could make it more challenging to connect certain areas, slowing down the overall process.

Regardless of these challenges, Commerce Director Lisa Brown said the next step with connecting Washingtonians is to maximize available funding.

“We will definitely try to draw down every federal dollar we can,” said Brown. “We want to make any Washington state investments go as far as possible.”
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.