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September 27, 2021

Digital Access for All

Tom Tryon, Opinion Editor for Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Who needs dependable access to large amounts of digital data at high speeds and affordable prices?


That aspect of modern life led The Patterson Foundation to launch the Digital Access for All (DA4A) initiative.

The Covid-19 pandemic hastened and intensified recognition of a vital need — ready access to devices and services capable of accommodating data, documents, and images.

DA4A intends to understand community and individual needs, especially among families with members identified as Asset Limited, Income-Constrained Employees (ALICE households have incomes above the federal poverty level but face hardships in meeting basic needs).

The urgency of broad-based access to the internet has been heightened during the pandemic, whether the users are students, business employees, patients, government workers, or nonprofit organizations. 

It took little time to shift interactions that had taken place in person for centuries — education, commerce, and health care, for instance — to digital-based platforms. Students were sent home for schooling via computer. Customers relied on websites to order goods. Doctors met with patients of all ages through telehealth. Office employees worked from their living rooms on whatever device was suited to the task.

Many people with access to high-speed internet connections are surviving, if not thriving, during the pandemic. However, those with no connections — or with subpar, spotty, or costly service — are struggling.

A coalition of seven community-oriented foundations engaged by DA4A surveyed various nonprofit organizations, seeking information about the pandemic’s impacts. The surveys, completed in early 2021 by 187 organizations in Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties, had numerous findings among them:

  • High percentages of nonprofit leaders said their organizations lack the equipment, platforms, network connections, and personnel training necessary to adequately serve their clients and communities online.
  • Significant numbers of households have no internet connections or computers (20 percent), and tens of thousands in each county have slow service. These conditions became dire when children were required to do schoolwork online.
  • Many heads of households don’t know how to gain better, more affordable service or obtain equipment sufficient for education, health care, and commerce.

TPF Fellow, John Ferguson, who works on the project said his team found that tackling the challenges requires action on multiple levels:

  • Nationwide policies and support
  • Local assistance navigating the system and meeting community-specific needs
  • Cooperation from companies that provide products and services

DA4A refers to a three-legged stool of needs: 1. Connectivity. 2. Devices. 3. Skills and support. The initiative responded in several ways, identifying resources for disconnected residents and supporting a Digital Navigator Program.

Navigators associated with participating nonprofits help people obtain low-cost, higher-speed service and suitable devices. The navigators are especially helpful when directing community members through complicated, time-consuming, and costly processes.

Yes, we all know that everyone needs workable devices and affordable access to functional internet service. The pandemic has underscored both the difficulties of following the appropriate path and the value of having someone offer directions along the way.

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