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Fostering human-centered support

ASU Experience Center reports key findings from working with Arizonans to close digital divide

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Millions of Americans lack adequate high-speed internet, putting them at a significant social disadvantage. To combat this issue, ASU's Experience Center has started working with Digital Equity Institute to set up a direct support line for individuals or families in Arizona who are interested in applying for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a government-supported benefit program that provides a discount toward internet service for eligible households.

January 09, 2023

“Don’t give up. We can finish this together,” said Alexa Tarvid, team supervisor at Arizona State University's Experience Center, as she recounts conversations with Arizona residents applying for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)

A government-supported benefit program from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the ACP provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. 

This support is critical as millions of Americans still lack adequate high-speed internet, putting them at a significant disadvantage for interacting with society.

“The ACP is an essential part of a much larger movement underway in the U.S. that includes resources, funding and support to help ensure that people from under- and unserved communities can access and afford the broadband internet they need to meaningfully engage in school, work, health care and more,” said Erin Carr-Jordan, executive director of digital equity and social impact at ASU Enterprise Technology

ASU and its collaborators are leading work to advance these efforts in Arizona, being recently awarded $34 million in funding to help create reliable internet access and training for Maricopa County

Part of this work is already underway and is tied directly to helping residents participate in the ACP benefit program. In August 2022, ASU's Experience Center — the university’s 24/7 support center — started working with Digital Equity Institute, a 501(c)(3), to set up a direct support line for individuals or families in Arizona who are interested in applying for the ACP. Carr-Jordan also serves as the managing director for the nonprofit. 

The direct support phone line through the Experience Center offers live connections to a specialist trained in helping residents understand their eligibility and/or work through the application process for the ACP benefit. 

Key findings from on-the-ground efforts 

For Tarvid, who supervises the team of Experience Center specialists supporting this effort, it’s clear that the impact of the digital divide is real for many community members. “Upon hearing that the application is online, many folks immediately ask if they can mail in physical copies (to apply),” Tarvid said. “You can hear the hesitation in their voice around submitting online, even if they voice this concern or not.”

Since August, Tarvid has been working with a team of IT specialists and data analysts from ASU Enterprise Technology to provide the FCC and government groups with critical insights to improve the ACP’s application process.

One finding noted that 59% of callers expressed discomfort with technology and anxiety over attempting online forms.

“Understanding that this statistic doesn’t happen in a vacuum is important,” Tarvid said. “We also measured the type of technology individuals were using to apply and found that 47% of callers said the only device they had to connect to the internet was their smartphone. Not only are they anxious about technology but now they must complete this uncomfortable task on a cramped screen with limited functionality.”

This information is critical to inform the future design and development of these programs. For backend developers, it means understanding the types of devices used to improve the user interface and experience.

For example, Tarvid noted a button labeled "submit" early in the application process. “This led people to believe they were done when it was not actually the final step in formally applying for the program. This resulted in applicants with incomplete applications wondering why they hadn’t been approved yet.” 

Additionally, Tarvid noted that the feeling of discomfort is complex and reveals itself in different emotional forms. “Self-doubt, frustration or embarrassment culminate into the vulnerability required for someone to reach out and ask for help,” Tarvid said. “We work with our agents to respect that vulnerability by paying attention to the expressions and intonation of an individual in order to work with them through these varying feelings.”

This complexity is not new for those working to create digital equity and inclusivity. Learning what new and systemic barriers exist will help provide critical support and solutions for applicants.

“While these conversations are around ACP in this specific context, this is all a symptom of digital inequity,” Tarvid said. “We are working to be part of a larger effort to provide a more holistic approach to break down these barriers and give all individuals the opportunity to be active in and benefit from digital and online resources.” 

Looking back to move forward

During the first three months, the Experience Center handled 798 calls to the direct support line; the findings above are from a sample of 100 callers. During this time, Common Sense Media ran a series of campaigns to promote the ACP and the support line from ASU’s Experience Center to residents in Arizona. 

In their current role, Experience Center specialists provide support for the first steps of the online enrollment process, which includes reviewing eligibility criteria for the ACP benefit program, and guiding them through the application over the phone. No one can fill out the application on their behalf, so specialists ensure that individuals have all the information and support they need to make their own decisions. 

Once an individual successfully enrolls, they are given an application ID they can take to one of the participating internet service providers to apply the benefit to their internet service. 

“While we can help an individual enroll in the program, we cannot ensure that they are able to apply their ACP benefit to their internet service bill,” Tarvid said. 

In the future, the ACP specialists group will expand its services to support individuals working with an internet service provider to receive their benefits. 

“We’re working on expanding this group’s service to be more inclusive of the holistic digital experience,” said Gigi Speaks, director of ASU’s Experience Center. “In the future, the group will evolve into digital navigators to support these efforts.”

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