The Digital Divide: Senator Murray discusses technology gaps in rural communities

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Senator Murray continued her travels throughout Washington state today as she visited Wenatchee to discuss her Digital Equity Act of 2019. The Act would create new federal investments “targeted toward a diverse array of projects” to promote digital equity at the state and local levels.

At a roundtable hosted at the new co-working and event space in the historic Ellis Forde building, the Mercantile, Murray visited with local leaders in tech and STEM from education to the private sector.

Prior to the discussion, Murray got two demonstrations from local companies who take advantage of Wenatchee’s growing tech corridor and branch out to offer digital inclusion services to the area. iSpyFire and Confluence health presented a brief look at what their technology is doing to make a difference before taking a deep dive into the local scope and impact of the digital divide. GWATA’s Jenny Rojanasthien helped facilitate the roundtable, and shared her hopes for the opportunity to share local stories.

“Today as we share some of our strengths and weaknesses in this area, I hope you will leave knowing that you have organizations and people on the ground who are committed to bridging the digital divide and are passionate about this work,” Rojanasthien said during the event.

Many of the roundtable participants cited issues like inconsistent access to broadband at home for local students and teachers, a lack of understanding and confidence in technology as well as difficulties in receiving funding to help rural communities.

Camille Jones, an elementary STEAM specialist in Quincy says she participated in the roundtable to share her concerns with the digital gaps she sees in her community. During the roundtable Jones shared stories of students hanging around school property just to get access to internet after hours, and fellow teacher’s lack of access to reliable broadband for online resources and training.

“Teachers have such a potential to be a great resource to close gaps in digital equity for our students,” Jones said. “The concern that I have in the disparities amongst teachers’ own skills in the digital world, and if we want to be a better resource to our students to learn, we need some support to also learn the skills ourselves.”

Nearly one in five teens in the U.S. say they cannot complete homework assignments because of the lack of a reliable internet connection, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 Census data.

“I think that there is starting to be a perception that the broadband access issue is over, that we’ve solved it, but really it is still a great, great concern in our rural communities,” Jones said, adding that Quincy has unique resources because of its growing tech industry.

“But even in Quincy, I still have issues connecting and watching videos I need for my professional development at my home and even our school district’s wifi access is not strong enough at times,” Jones said.

She added that it seems to boil down to three issues.

“There’s the skills we need, the devices that we need and also the access to the broadband that we need,” Jones said. “We need to continue pushing forward.”

Murray ended her visit with a discussion about what local organizations, schools and colleges are doing to close the gap and how this Act could assist their efforts.

The Digital Equity Act aims to create two new federal grant programs. Murray says she will be working with partners in the House to get the bill passed and signed into Law.