Digital equity is the assurance that all individuals, including the most disadvantaged populations, have equal access to the information and technology necessary to fully participate in society. This not only includes a digital connection but also education, training, and programs to enable residents to take full advantage of available resources.
Research finds that the benefits of digital connectivity are historically not evenly distributed and that those who lack access tend to fall behind in educational achievement, health outcomes, and other indicators. The County Manager’s Proposed FY 2020 Budget recommends establishing a Digital Equity Network that leverages existing County fiber-optic infrastructure to connect facilities and community non-profits serving low-income and other disadvantaged individuals. While the County cannot provide internet services directly to residents, one of the main reasons for digital inequity is a lack of infrastructure that allows residents to gain that access, and the County can play a role in this area.
The Manager’s proposal specifically includes an allocation of $250,000 in one-time funds to construct lateral connections from existing buildings operated by non-profits and housing and health care providers to the County’s dark fiber network, ConnectArlington; enhance digital infrastructure within some County-owned buildings that serve disadvantaged residents; and allocate $50,000 in ongoing funds for Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) Housing Services funds to eligible providers to establish programs and services related to bridging the digital divide for low-income residents (e.g., telehealth devices and digital literacy education).
The County undertook its first digital equity demonstration project in December 2017, upon approval from the County Board. The project provided broadband infrastructure to Arlington Mill Residences, a family-friendly affordable housing complex on Columbia Pike, and funded broadband access for residents for a period of three years. While the County is still capturing data necessary to gauge success of the project, the efforts and services at Arlington Mill provide a potentially useful template for making similar investments in infrastructure, resources, and training in the future. The pilot has also sparked a community conversation around digital equity. As staff begins developing a Digital Equity Action Plan and engaging partners in developing and implementing new demonstration projects, the core program elements can be structured to build upon and innovate around the Arlington Mill model. The overall purpose of the Digital Equity Action Plan is to develop a comprehensive vision well as to engage stakeholders and the community around building a digital equity policy framework with eventual adoption by the Arlington County Board. Having a digitally engaged citizenry improves individual success, attracts local investment, improves workforce readiness and bolsters citizen engagement.
- Healthy, Safe and Secure Community