The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many fault lines in American society, but one that quickly became remarkably visible is the digital divide, a term used for decades that has lately described those who have access to broadband internet and those who do not.
Even before the pandemic fully took hold in the United States, the digital divide was a yawning chasm. A report released in February from the company BroadbandNow found the Federal Communications Commission’s estimate that 21 million Americans lack access to broadband actually undercounts the figure by 20 million.
As the pandemic escalated across the country, and as remote schooling and working from home became the norm for millions of people, the lack of access to broadband was thrown into stark relief. Local officials across the country sprang into action following the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020, using federal funding and other sources of revenue to expand access to broadband.
City governments have provided vouchers and subsidies to residents to purchase broadband internet, have provided routers and hotspot devices, have offered expanded connectivity at facilities such as public libraries, and offered digital literacy training, among other initiatives.
A year into the pandemic, political and IT leaders in cities argue that to continue closing the divide after the crisis period of the pandemic has passed, cities will need more sustainable and dedicated sources of funding. Additionally, they say, the conversation around digital equity will need to shift, with access to affordable broadband service viewed as an essential element to economic prosperity and a well-functioning, equitable city.
“We have to start talking about this as infrastructure, not as luxury,” says Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Andy Berke. “We don’t only supply roads to the people with the most money. We supply roads all over the city. And this change of thinking, that broadband is more like infrastructure that everyone needs to have a fair shot at a middle-class life, that changes the way people treat it.”
Here is a look at how four cities stretching the breadth of country — Chattanooga, Philadelphia, Houston and Sacramento, Calif. — have taken varying approaches to getting their residents connected.
Chattanooga Expands Access to Fiber-Optic Network
There are few cities in the United States more wired for broadband than Chattanooga. As CNET notes, the city “has been a standard-bearer in municipal broadband over the past few years.” That’s because, as StateTech has reported, the local utility, EPB, “became the first U.S. utility to offer 1-gigabit internet speed service to its entire community in 2010.”
Although EPB initially deployed the fiber-optic network that supports the ultrafast broadband to create an advanced smart grid to distribute electricity, the broadband service — and its expansion in the past year — has proven extremely valuable.
Before the pandemic struck, EPB offered a discounted internet program called NetBridge, which offered 100-megabit-per-second internet service to low-income households for $26.99 a month, which was less than half of the normal rate.
When the pandemic unfolded in March, EPB deployed 130 Wi-Fi hotspots at 27 locations in the community, accordin to J. Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing at EPB. EPB partnered with Hamilton County Public Schools and the city’s Enterprise Center, which manages its innovation district and a digital literacy program, to determine the best locations to place the Wi-Fi hotspots to maximize coverage for students who needed it most.
Those Wi-Fi hotspots have hosted more than 78,000 user sessions and driven 39,300 gigabytes of data usage, according to Marston.
More significant, however, was EPB’s rollout of HCS EdConnect, a program to deliver service at no charge to families with students in K–12 schools who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. According to Berke, the city and Hamilton County contributed $1.5 million each to the effort, the school district added $1 million and other philanthropies contributed funds to support the cost of additional fiber deployments, which is expected to run $8.3 million over 10 years.
The amount of data used via Wi-Fi hotspots EPB deployed in Chattanooga in 2020
Source: EPB of Chattanooga, Tenn.
The home-based service, which supports speeds of at least 100 Mbps, comes with a free Wi-Fi router and assistance to families connecting student devices. According to EPB, more than 12,000 students have internet access through HCS EdConnect. EPB is continuing outreach to get more students and families connected, Marston says. The goal is to make the program a long-lasting initiative that outlives the pandemic.
“Part what we wanted to do with HCS EdConnect is make it a definitive and lasting effort to bridge the digital divide,” Marston says. “I think one of the big things that makes this a national model is that it isn’t a short-term solution. It certainly addresses the immediate need, but the goal is to ensure that it’s a lasting solution — beyond education, because this is a high-speed, fiber-optic, symmetrical internet service with no data caps. It’s got plenty of bandwidth for video-based and other kinds of educational applications. At the same time, it’s there for families who will deal with job searches, families who need connections for remote work.”
Berke says that digital literacy and access to broadband is “foundational” in people’s economic mobility, which will only become truer over time. “When you have a crisis, it brings those facts into stark relief, but we wanted to use this moment, when there was political momentum, great public knowledge and understanding of the circumstances and awareness of our asset, to make this happen.”
Houston Targets Underserved Communities via Digital Inclusion
Before the pandemic, Houston was not addressing the digital divide in a truly comprehensive way, but the crisis forced the city to do so, says Jesse Bounds, director of the Mayor’s Office of Innovation.
Thanks to about $200 million in funding through the CARES Act, the Texas Education Agency was able to secure devices and hotspots for K–12 students in the state, which helped close the divide for some of Houston’s residents, Bounds says. However, other vulnerable communities, such as the elderly and those with disabilities in the city, still lacked broadband access, he notes.
Houston targeted its digital equity efforts at low-income seniors, those between 16 and 24 years old who were not in school or employed and parents with children younger than 5, according to Bounds. Comp-U-Dopt, a local nonprofit, distributed thousands of refurnished computers to those groups. The city’s public libraries added 2,300 Wi-Fi hotspots for to be checked out, as well as 200 laptops, according to Bounds. Houston also expanded public Wi-Fi access in Comcast “Lift Zones” at 30 community centers in the city.
The mayor’s office worked with four other city agencies to launch in December a voucher program for a year of free Comcast broadband service, which will aid about 5,000 city residents.
Joshua Williams, a FUSE Corps fellow who started working with the city in January as part of a comprehensive digital inclusion effort, says he is focused on how to build on those initiatives measures and measure their effectiveness. Another element of the work ahead will be to collaborate with national nonprofits focused on closing the digital divide, such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and learn from them. Williams notes that the digital divide can exacerbate existing disparities in communities, in educational quality or access to food and healthcare for elderly residents.
Bounds notes that a lack of access to broadband is correlated to lack of upward income mobility and low quality-of-life metrics. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities program is designed to help underserved communities and ensure they have access to quality amenities and services. “I think it’s just a natural thing that we prioritize digital equity, because that’s equity of opportunity,” Bounds says.
Philadelphia Plans a New Digital Equity Strategy
Philadelphia has long had a focus on digital equity and inclusion, and more than a decade ago it created a network of public computing centers around the city with grant funding, notes Andrew Buss, deputy CIO for innovation management. That program, called Key Spot, has served over 1 million people since its inception, according to Buss.
Juliet Fink Yates, a digital inclusion fellow with the city, says the program is being retooled and may focus more on lending laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots. Fink joined the city’s CIO office near the start of the pandemic but has been working with Buss and others in the city for years.
“I really viewed Juliet joining us as a way to say to everyone, ‘OK, we’re really valuing this work. It’s very important,’” Buss says. “Now we’re adding a resource who’s an expert who can really focus on it.”
In August, the city launched PHLConnectED, a collaborative effort aimed at connecting up to 35,000 low-income K–12 student households with internet service and devices. The city, the School District of Philadelphia, Comcast and numerous nonprofit groups came together to fund and launch the program.
According to Yates, as of December 2020, the program has helped more than 12,000 families, including over 2,500 students who received MiFi devices from the school district over the spring and summer; more than 7,300 families that signed up for 60 days of free Comcast Internet Essentials service and now have their internet bills paid for by PHLConnectED; and another 2,400 families that have been connected directly through the program to either Internet Essentials or MiFi devices.
Beyond the K–12 student households, there is an enormous need in the city for broadband access. “We don’t have that same pot for everyone else,” Yates says. “There’s no government entity yet at the state or federal level that has stepped in to say, ‘This is how we’re going to create that for everyone.’”
That’s why Yates and Buss are working to create a larger digital equity strategy for Philadelphia, bringing together city government officials, the Digital Literacy Alliance and additional stakeholders.
There’s no government entity yet at the state or federal level that has stepped in to say, ‘This is how we’re going to create that for everyone.’”
Part of the discussion revolves around how to use city infrastructure to deploy wireless broadband service. The digital equity strategy is expected to be unveiled in the spring of 2021, according to Buss.
The strategy will set out broad goals and key activities to achieve them over the next several years, Yates says. It will require partnerships with corporations and the state and federal governments to make broadband access universally available, Yates acknowledges.
Still, the pandemic has created a significant amount of momentum in the city among corporate and philanthropic partners to make digital equity a sustained priority. “We’ve been talking about it for years and couldn’t get a ton of traction on it,” Yates says. “Now there are a lot of people who really are interested in talking with us and wanting to be partners with us and wanting to move it forward.”
Sacramento Forges Partnerships to Bridge Digital Divide
Before the pandemic, Sacramento, Calif., was taking steps to expand broadband access in the city, including a program to deploy free Wi-Fi in city parks, which started in October 2019 and was completed in December 2020.
The city launched other initiatives over the course of the pandemic. The Sacramento Public Library, in partnership with the city and community-based organizations, distributed 1,400 Wi-Fi hotspots to eligible residents impacted by the pandemic.
In September, the city launched a program in collaboration with United Way California Capital Region and different community-based organizations to offer free broadband access to up to 10,000 Sacramento households affected by the pandemic, particularly low-income households with children and seniors. The City Council allocated $1 million for the effort, according to CIO Maria MacGunigal.
Sacramento partnered with the community-based organizations — including Asian Resources, Filipino Community of Sacramento and Vicinity, La Familia Counseling Center and the Neighborhood Innovation program — to leverage their existing relationships with those communities, according to MacGunigal. The city provided computers and hotspots, along with subsidized Comcast Internet Essentials service.
MacGunigal says Sacramento has been working on regional partnerships to close the digital divide “for quite some time” and that there are many opportunities over the long term to continue to expand broadband access.
The populations that remain unconnected in the city are the ones that are hardest to reach, MacGunigal says, especially seniors and low-income residents with unstable housing. Those residents are also more vulnerable to COVID-19, she notes, and were cut off from services when physical offices closed down last spring.
The way forward for cities to close the digital divide, according to MacGunigal, is to develop sustainable, long-term funding for digital equity and broadband expansion projects. In Sacramento, that is taking the form of using a small portion of the revenue the city gets from leasing its streetlight infrastructure for wireless small cells to fund such efforts, as well as the deployment of new fiber-optic infrastructure.
“I think that it’s important for cities to lean into contributing some money, so there is a base, and the working with others to contribute to that pot of money,” she says.
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