Recently I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with a digital inclusion champion here in New Mexico by the name of Eva Artschwager, and one of the things she wanted to discuss was what I saw were the problems to digital inclusion in rural New Mexico. As I sorely need to update you all on my project I thought this would be a great opportunity to set a framework for my next few blog posts.
Caveat: I am new to this field, and I don’t in any way presume to speak for those who live in rural, tribal areas of New Mexico, but I will try my best to share with you my perception of four major roadblock to digital inclusion in my short time doing this work: Affordability, Advocacy, Resource Networking, and Adoption.
I keep coming back to a conversation I had with Allison Brody, the head of Education at Explora Science Center, about what connectivity options exist in rural tribal New Mexico. When going back and forth about the issue she asked: “Well what are the offers in the area?”, and the answer I keep coming back to is “Not good”. To illustrate the problem of affordability I’ll be using Nageezi, a rural community that is a part of the Navajo Nation in Northern New Mexico, near Farmington, as a case study location for a hypothetical family of 4, with a household income of $11,042, which is the median household income in Nageezi according to the US Census.
There are two main ways to tap into broadband internet for a family in Nageezi (if the family is fortunate enough to live within the Nageezi city limits, which is not a guarantee) one, is through HughesNet, a satellite internet provider; the other is through Sacred Wind Communications, a local internet provider servicing communities within the Navajo Nation. The cheapest internet deal is through HughesNet at $50 a month with a 24 month commitment, providing only 10g a month at 25 mbps down and only 3 mbps up. At a total cost of $600 (around 5% of median household income) per year, not including installation and service fees I don’t have to tell you that this isn’t a good deal. I should mention that a family would be able to use up to 50g a month at the same speed, if they limit their use to off-peak time, which is between 2am and 8am. This prospect is hardly ideal. The second offer through Sacred Winds provides internet speeds of 4 m (slightly better) at $55 a month (6% median household income) , ranging up to 20 m for $150 (16% median household income) per month. Considering the alternatives this is not a bad deal for a family, but they have to be lucky enough to live in a house that is already connected to DSL, or live in an applicable service area which is not a guarantee.
With offers like these, families often resort to using cellphones as their primary means of connecting to the internet. Cell providers used in this area have numerous promotions and deals, making it hard to compare prices between them. Because employment in San Juan Co. is temperamental and often seasonal, a cell service customer might be forced to choose a plan that requires them to pay in advance for internet use, with prices (around) $20 per 1/2 gig of cell data. For a student or job seeker this is a disastrous plan, and does not promote the kind of continuous use of the internet that can lead to proficiency. The last option is for residents to apply for lifeline cell service through companies like Choice Wireless (NTUA), though this option itself presents the issue of paperwork, which I will discuss below.
Let’s imagine our household of 4 has made the commitment to get connected to the internet. The stars have aligned and they have not only the sufficient savings for the up-front cost of installation, but also live in an applicable service area (not at the foot of a mountain that would forgo satellite connection, or in a far region of town without DSL cable) and have the great fortune of being reliably employed for the foreseeable future to commit to monthly payments. Now what? Now comes the paperwork, now comes the time investment, and the emails, and the digital work that this family, before now only connected to the internet via cellphone, are unprepared to do. Any breach in protocol, any misstep here and the family can be out a month of internet service and back to the beginning. What about programs to reduce the cost? They exist, sure, but require reams of printed paperwork, from printers that the family doesn’t have or aren’t hooked up. The family can drive to Farmington or Bloomfield to visit the library to print these out, but this is a time investment that sometimes families are unable to make. What about a home computer? Let’s assume they have one: who knows how to use it?
At each turn our family is faced with one more, admittedly small, hardship that when compiled can look like a marathon run just to simply get connected. We know the importance of having a family, especially with school aged children, connected to the internet. Let’s also not assume this family doesn’t know the importance as well. But the sad reality is that even if a family knows the importance, has saved their pennies, and has options in sight they may still be unable to make that last all important step. This is where the local advocates come in. We have advocates on national and state levels, what we need is the librarian with a fire in his heart. What we need is the elementary school teacher that decides to spend her free time volunteering to bridge the gap. What we need are on the ground local champions saying “yes it’s hard, yes it’s a long process, but I know the process, and by the way you can use my printer.” Projects like the NDIA Digital Inclusion Corps are going a long way to help create these champions, but we the corps will go away after one year, so it is our responsibility to find and activate these people.
What surprised me most about jumping into this work is just how many resources are available for people who know where to find them. There are libraries, community centers and non-for-profits around every corner who are seriously willing to help, if only they could get the word out and if only people would know they exist. This is a big step that needs to take place. Right now there are small lights in the sky of digital inclusion dotting the rural landscape, the need is for someone with expertise and foresight to start drawing these small lights into constellations that are recognizable, sustainable, and well known. Too many projects are started that then fall off the map because they are under-utilized, not because they have bad offers or programs to bridge the gap, but because they compete for grant money, and because the people that would most benefit from their service don’t know they exist, or don’t know how to get started. These resources need to be networked together, like NDIA into a cooperative bloc with a drive and a purpose.
This is a big term. I want to start by acknowledging this. Adoption didn’t initially make my list as a problem and I’ll explain why. As I understand the term it refers to an individual’s understanding of the benefits of being connected to the internet. Often I encounter it as a benchmark for community outreach programs. Why I am hesitant to use it in my blog is because from my (limited) experience people do understand the benefits of being connected. Almost every person I have spoken with knows that their life can be improved by access to the internet, but in most cases these benefits are outweighed by the sheer cost in time and money that stands between them and being connected. The problem I see with adoption is that organizations still think there’s a problem with adoption. I’ll be honest there are still pockets and communities that don’t know what the internet can provide, but they are few and far between. What I have noticed is that the germ of adoption, especially in young families and single people, has taken root, and those that can get connected have gotten connected. Those that are still unconnected are not waiting to understand the necessity, they are waiting for someone to understand exactly what stands in their way. For my project I have decided to take small, light steps with this term. I might be wrong, and adoption may still be an issue, but I will still start by acknowledging that families are aware of what a life changing step having home internet is, and proceed from there with curiosity and dialogue. I also want to take this opportunity to admit that many people who have worked in this field for far longer disagree with me, and they are probably right, but in my (limited) work in this field I have found that adoption isn’t the primary problem anymore: It’s the abysmal options and terrible support families have to deal with that are the biggest step.
In my next few blog posts I will be discussing, step by step, how my project will be addressing these problems. For affordability unfortunately not much can be done in a year, except for beginning a conversation and bringing stakeholders together around the issues. I will explain how ExploraConnect will try to activate advocates on a local level and what steps we’re taking to help network together resources and package them for families to understand. I will talk about the small partnerships this project has formed to carry out our Family Science Night outreaches, how that has helped activate advocates as well as network resources for families to be informed.