Funding makes ASU home to the largest university-led digital equity initiative in the country
Like food, clothing and shelter, the internet has become a basic need. Today, access is a determining factor for quality of life as it connects people to vital health care, learning experiences and work opportunities.
Yet, across Arizona, reliable access to high-speed broadband remains unequal. In Maricopa County, some neighborhoods report as many as 70% of residents are still without adequate internet performance needed for remote work, downloading homework or streaming.
Arizona State University is leading an effort to bridge this divide. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to provide ASU and its collaborators $34.6 million through 2026 to advance broadband, community support, equipment and training across Maricopa County, which includes the metro Phoenix area.
The funding makes ASU home to the largest university-led digital equity initiative in the country. ASU Enterprise Technology, Sun Corridor Network and the 501(c)(3) Digital Equity Institute will lead the effort along with hundreds of faculty, students and staff to bolster digital proficiency and distribute internet-connected devices to those in need.
“The idea of providing access at scale is embedded in the ASU Charter,” said Chris Howard, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the ASU Public Enterprise, which aims to design, build and oversee a new model for a national university. “ Our digital equity agreement with Maricopa County signifies that as a public enterprise our commitment extends well beyond ASU’s physical locations.”
Mary Haddad, an ASU undergraduate student, shared at an ASU Town Hall her vision for the future where the internet is readily accessible for all: “In an ideal future, we are providing training, online tools and resources, making sure that we are continuously available if they need help and support.”
Partnering for social impact
It took an agile collaboration between government, education, community and industry to get to the point of funding. When the White House administration announced the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, broadband was featured prominently on the national solutions agenda.
Seeing the opportunity and the need, a group of regional partners sprung into action.
A broadband task force convened under the umbrella of The Connective, Greater Phoenix’s smart region consortium and an initiative of the Partnership for Economic Innovation. The group consisted of government officials, Maricopa County and a technical advisory team led by ASU and the Digital Equity Institute.
“Through the broadband task force, we have an opportunity to build a region where every person is a fully engaged and active participant in shaping the future of the community in which they live,” said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, a task force member and a board member of the Partnership for Economic Innovation.
The nearly $35 million in funding to ASU comes through the American Rescue Plan package, awarded by Maricopa County.
“It is only through a collaborative partnership and proactive leadership that we will begin to address these structural barriers at a regionwide level to ensure the digital economy reaches all Greater Phoenix households,” said Bill Gates, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors chairperson.
Moving forward, collaboration will remain at the center. ASU Enterprise Technology, Sun Corridor Network and the Digital Equity Institute will partner to connect community anchor institutions, such as schools, health clinics and other neighborhood assets, and provide educational programs that support communities’ journeys from digital inequity to full participation.
Work is aready underway to build a better connected community
Recent broadband installation pilots with Phoenix’s Isaac School District, led by ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and Enterprise Technology, already revealed positive impacts from improving access in K–12. Now, the implications of this latest funding allocation reach every facet of learning, working and thriving.
“The Digital Equity Institute is committed to taking a holistic approach to leveling the playing field,” said Erin Carr-Jordan, managing director of the Digital Equity Institute. “Through meaningful collaboration, we can amplify the voices of disadvantaged communities and provide people with access to the knowledge, skills and support needed to fully participate in every aspect of society, democracy and the economy.”
ASU is already analyzing the data and preparing the geographic maps as the basis for the forthcoming broadband installations.
“We must know where the gaps in service are, and this granular level of data will help us scale to serve more of our communities,” said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at ASU. “We want to make sure that the resources allocated to solving this pervasive, systemic challenge are directed to where they are most needed.”
This Monday, Oct. 3, marks the first Arizona Digital Inclusion Celebration Summit, hosted by the Digital Equity Institute and ASU’s ShapingEDU — free and open to all.
Gates, from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, will kick off the event by sharing the current and future state of digital equity. Government officials, broadband experts, digital literacy champions and other key groups will detail what the community needs to know — and what comes next.
Written by Samantha Becker. For media inquiries, please contact Annie Davis, [email protected]