Future of Tech Commission holds Arizona town hall on internet equity, access

future of tech commission

A public discussion hosted by the Future of Tech Commission last week focused on one of the biggest issues facing Arizona right now: internet equity.

The Covid-19 pandemic shined a thousand lights on digital equity and access. Rural schools, especially, faced major challenges while attempting to teach online during the pandemic. 

Connect Arizona reports that 1.3 million Arizonans need internet access and a Common Sense Media study finds that 29% of Arizona students lack internet access. That’s over 335,000 students.

The Common Sense Media study reported that 56%, or over 186,000, students without internet access are Black, Latinx or Native American.

Many ASU students, mostly young women of color, attended the town hall. They discussed their own experiences with the digital divide, and offered solutions to ensure better access for everyone in the future.

“I don’t believe that it’s possible to have these types of discussions without mentioning or hearing from those indigenous perspectives,” said current ASU student Lourdes Pereira. “I’ve experienced many obstacles just to come close to digital equity, and I still face these obstacles to this day.”

What are Arizona tech leaders doing to provide solutions or help residents overcome the digital divide?

Fireline Science is a Tempe-based startup that’s developing a new framework for an edge-based learning management system (LMS) that will work in completely offline or suboptimal online student environments. 

The company was founded in response to the increase of digital issues that surfaced during the pandemic and personal experience with the digital divide.

“We began this project based on my father’s experience as a principal of a Native American K-6 boarding school,” Collin Sellman, CEO of Fireline Science, said in a statement last month. “When the Covid-19 crisis began, he had no viable digital learning solutions for his students and had to rely on bus drivers delivering paper packets to provide continuity of learning.”

Many students were left behind during online school due to the lack of internet infrastructure across Arizona. But the digital divide touches adults, too.

In May, Coconino County partnered with SpaceX to provide internet access via state-of-the-art satellites to towns across northern Arizona. Starlink internet is currently available near Tuba City, where no service existed previously. The households include individuals from the Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute and Hopi tribes.

“We know the critical need for quality, reliable internet access to rural Coconino County,” said County Vice-chair Lena Fowler in a statement. “Our families and workforce need to be connected to compete in today’s market, grow in their education, and enhance their quality of life.”

Most workers across the state moved to remote work last spring. Connect Arizona is an online resource working to teach people how to use the internet, while also finding free WiFi near them.

The reality is that it’s 2021. With all the progress we’ve seen in technology over the last several years, how is it that communities throughout our thriving and growing state still don’t have internet access? As the tech industry grows and the divide deepens, countless individuals are left behind the curve for the simple fact that internet infrastructure doesn’t reach their communities.