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Strengthening Digital Equity in Rural Communities

Three inspiring programs — and three quick-tips

Three images showing signage, projects and devices related to digital connectivity.

Courtesy images

Promotional signage two digital education programs (left) and a "smart speaker" device (right).

This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP state offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.

Free Fact Sheets

The Exploring Digital Equity Fact Sheet Series of downloadable PDFs was created by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance with support from AARP Livable Communities. 

High-speed internet is a critical yet still inaccessible connector in too many places.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 22 percent of rural residents and 28 percent of people living on tribal lands do not have access to high-speed internet. Among city dwellers that figure hovers around just 2 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect initiative is providing rural communities with infrastructure funding to close the digital divide. At the same time, local leaders and nonprofits have been implementing programs to enable rural residents to safely integrate internet use into their lives.

Following are a few examples: 

Northern Hilltowns Consortium of Councils on Aging (Massachusetts)

Identifying the Need: Although the Northern Hilltowns Consortium of Councils on Aging offered monthly in-person technology help and workshops in each of its seven rural communities in western Massachusetts, the nonprofit knew it wasn’t reaching all who needed assistance. So in 2023, a questionnaire was mailed to the area’s 3,500 residents age 60 or older with an addressed and stamped return envelope. Respondents could complete the survey online or deliver it in person at a Councils on Aging office.

Of the nearly 35 percent of the recipients who responded, 86 percent said they used technology daily for a range of activities and 33 percent confirmed using the internet for telehealth services.

The identified barriers among those reporting an infrequent use of web technology were cost, learning-related difficulties and safety concerns. Although most users said that they could get help from family or friends, half wanted to be more independent by learning more, with most wanting access to assistance by telephone, a drop-in center or through online training.

Using the survey findings, the consortium applied for and received a grant to provide drop-in center tech support in each town, access to online courses and videos, and training resources so community volunteers could provide technical assistance individually or by phone. The Western Massachusetts-based Alliance for Digital Equity is using the survey results to inform policy and give voice to rural older adults in Massachusetts’s statewide planning on broadband access and digital equity. 

Age My Way NC (North Carolina)

Bridging the Generational and Digital Divide: According to the North Carolina Rural Center, the population of people 65 or older in state’s rural communities increased by 27 percent between 2010 and 2020. Age My Way NC, a collaboration between AARP North Carolina and the State of North Carolina, hosts the Digital Ambassador Program, which recruits, trains and deploys high school seniors to provide one-on-one technology assistance to older residents so they can access critical programs and services. The students, who can help the seniors such needs as setting up online banking and telehealth access, receive a stipend and develop workforce skills and credentials. Additionally, Zenbooths have been installed in libraries so community members can use the soundproof booths while accessing telehealth care or needing privacy while speaking with other service providers. (Technical help is available if needed.) 

Age Friendly Saco (Maine)

Providing Low-Cost Personal Digital Assistants: Age Friendly Saco’s Tech Handy Helper program connects older residents with smart technology, such as a smart speaker system that can (among other tasks) prepare shopping lists, turn lights on and off, lock and unlock doors, place calls and  provide wake-up alerts and medication reminders. (Watch a Facebook video about the program.)

Although the devices cannot dial 911, users in need of emergency assistance can verbally tell the device to “Phone the Saco Fire Department” or “Phone the Saco Police Department.” When a family member or friend is needed for something less urgent, the smart speaker will cycle through a list of personal contacts until someone answers.

Since the program launched in 2019, the nonprofit has acquired grants enabling it to give away more than 100 devices. Volunteers install the equipment and provide training for using it. The group has also received grants to provide digital connectivity smart sticks and smart plugs to residents on a fixed income and the training to help them stream entertainment content rather than purchase or rent a cable box.

Quick-Tips for Reducing the Digital Divide

1. Learn about your community

The survey developed by the Northern Hilltowns Consortium of Councils on Aging fit onto one double-sided sheet of legal-sized paper. One-quarter of the space was used to explain the need for the survey and how the results would be used. The concise design helped the nonprofit achieve a high return rate.

2. Become a trusted partner

In 2023, the Southern Oklahoma Library System submitted a winning AARP Community Challenge grant application to create a private space in the Johnston County Library in rural Tishomingo for residents without home internet service to use during their telehealth appointments.

3. Test an idea through quick-action project

Age-Friendly Saco received a $2,000 Maine Community Foundation grant to start its Tech Handy Helper program. Wireless connectivity smart speakers and smart plugs are relatively inexpensive, especially when they are purchased on sale. Rather than ask residents to prove financial need, the team offers workshops that are open to the public. Each participant who wants a smart plug receives one and is given the opportunity to apply for help setting up and using the personal assistant devices in their home.

Patricia Oh, Ph.D., is a senior program manager at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She works closely with Maine's age-friendly and lifelong communities ( and with the AARP Livable Communities team, supporting outreach to rural communities and municipalities that have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities

Page published January 2024

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