For a long time, Washington’s digital divide worried many groups of people who saw its harmful and inequitable effects: librarians, teachers, tribal governments, and community-based organizations that help workers struggling to feed their families, to name several.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. All of a sudden people were cut off from friends, family, and critical school communications if they had unstable internet connections or unreliable cellular service, or didn’t have money to repair their devices. When medical professionals switched to telehealth appointments, thousands of people suddenly had to learn how to access those services, with many falling behind, essentially excluded from access to necessary preventative care, COVID-19 testing, and vaccination appointments. Teachers and librarians spent countless unpaid hours during the pandemic working to minimize the impacts of inequitable access on student success. Upgrade King County volunteers include former teachers and education professionals who have witnessed the pain families experience due to digital inequities.
Our digital spaces often replicate the same inequities as our physical spaces. It’s been hard to make broadband access affordable for many Washington residents, and to pass laws enabling communities to build networks for themselves.
There’s one thing you can do this week to help make digital inclusion a reality for many Washingtonians. During this state legislative session, we have an opportunity to tackle these challenges by supporting House Bill 1723 to move to the Senate floor for a vote, and ensuring that its digital equity programs are funded adequately in the capital budget.
The bill clarifies that the State Broadband Office’s scope of work includes broadband adoption (helping people get online and use the internet), not just infrastructure build-out (wires and construction). It recognizes the need to support ongoing outreach by community-based partnerships to provide enrollment assistance in affordable internet and device programs.
HB 1723 also fills some gaps in local and federal programs, and sets a framework for the state to accept and utilize federal funding that will be coming from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (IIJA) for broadband programs–including the Digital Equity Act, drafted and championed by Senator Patty Murray with help from Washington community advocates and experts. Other than these anticipated federal funds, our state legislature has not yet specified any amount or source of funding to accompany HB 1723.
Cable franchise agreements have historically provided the largest blocks of funding for digital equity and broadband access services, though typically not in amounts exceeding a couple hundred thousand dollars. These funds are diminishing as cable companies aggressively cut the public-interest subsidies out of their contracts while continuing to use our taxpayer-funded public rights of way.
These days we rely almost entirely on digital access to engage with government officials–email, voicemail, online comment forms, and videoconferences. For some people this has been an amazing expansion of access and empowerment! For example, people who can afford working devices and are lucky enough to live in an area with sufficient broadband might not have to choose between arranging for childcare and speaking at a King County Council meeting.
For other folks, digital barriers can have dire consequences. Check out the King County Court Watch Twitter feed. These eviction hearings seem predicated on the person facing eviction having a working device, internet connection, and knowledge of how to navigate a Zoom court proceeding. This is a recipe for disaster on top of disaster, on top of disaster.
Following up on the work of many groups for decades, in King County we now have the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBR), and others forging a path towards digital equity. Equity in Education Coalition (EEC)’s Tech Connect WA program has already begun to fill in a long-needed gap for in-language access to tech support for families across Washington State. Black Brilliance Research Project, UW, and others have launched jobs training programs which skill up community members to build, run, and maintain their own networks. Community networks are a direct response to the disempowerment so many Washingtonians feel when subjected to the whims of corporate monopolies controlling what has become an essential service and basic right: internet access. HB 1723 would help fund and sustain critical community-led programs.
What will HB 1723 do?
- Establish the Digital Equity Account in the State Treasury to put the funds into, and allows for federal, private, and other contributions, which could be designated for one or more of the programs. The legislature will still have to allocate the funds for them to be spent.
- Establish the Digital Equity Planning Grant Program to provide grants to local governments, institutions of higher education, workforce development councils, or other entities to fund the development of a digital equity plan for a discrete geographic region of the state.
- Modifies a Digital Equity Opportunity Program grant program to award grants to local communities and organizations for digital equity projects to help with internet, training, support, and device provisioning. This renames and expands the former Community Technology Opportunity Program. It also removes a match requirement.
- Continues the State Digital Equity Forum Advisory Council to provide recommendations on how the state can move forward in planning and applying a digital equity lens to broadband deployment and adoption efforts. It also adds a provision allowing funds to be used to compensate people with lived experience navigating barriers to digital connectivity for any work they do in connection with the Forum.
HB 1723 attempts to extract some public good from the private monopolies that control our online spaces. Unfortunately, as expected, those telecom companies have fought aggressively against it, just as they tried last year to weaken HB 1336, which removed state restrictions on public utilities providing broadband access directly to consumers.
After a February 8th City of Seattle Community Technology Advisory Committee meeting, the Black Brilliance Research Project tweeted, “It’s essential we support #HB1723. We spoke to so many underserved community members and they were clear – this is the bill we need. It’s frustrating to hear that ATT, TMobile and Verizon aren’t being honest. We must support digital equity now. Our communities deserve better.”
This is a critical moment in which we can leverage Federal funding to make Seattle a national leader for digital equity and broadband access – if our elected officials are willing to act. There are not enough organizations and individuals to counter the seemingly-limitless time of paid corporate lobbyists who conduct constant revolving-door meetings with IT departments and elected officials’ offices at every level of government.
We need to pass HB 1723 out of the Senate this session and examine just how many of our legislators in Olympia are beholden to telecoms and listening to their lobbyists instead of the regular people of Washington who sent them to uphold democracy and fairness. HB 1723 must be passed by the Senate by March 4th, 2022 and then win concurrence in the House by March 10th, 2022.
Check out this video interview: Black Brilliance Research Project’s Shaun Glaze and Representative Mia Gregerson discuss the importance of HB 1723 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2wSkWi6Rfk
We support HB 1723 and encourage you to vote on it on the Senate Floor. Together, we can increase access to affordable home internet, devices, and digital skill training. HB 1723 sets a framework for the State to accept and utilize funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for broadband programs, including the Digital Equity Act that Washington State advocates and experts helped Sen. Patty Murray draft and champion.
The pandemic pushed 10 years of planned technological change to happen in less than a year. It showed us the importance of getting the entire country connected and able to use new technology in meaningful ways. To do this, we need policymakers to be our partners.
Please make digital inclusion a top priority by voting for HB 1723.
Upgrade King County (Guest Contributor)
Upgrade King County is a group of volunteers who meet monthly. We work towards a public broadband option for Seattle and King County. We’ve created an internet access zine to help community navigate the complex subsidy programs for free and low-cost internet. We are looking for more volunteers to support this work.