- The City of Philadelphia released its first Digital Equity Plan last week, a five-year plan that addresses local issues related to barriers to broadband and affordable, accessible devices. The city also announced an executive order intended to address these needs.
- The digital equity plan sets out four key goals, including ensuring residents can access affordable technology devices; helping local residents access and afford the Internet; develop the digital skills of residents; and develop and maintain the city’s capacity and infrastructure to improve digital equity.
- The plan also calls for city leaders to engage with the state on local digital equity needs, particularly as policies are developed to distribute federal dollars, including from the bipartisan infrastructure law. . The city also plans to address inequalities through public-private partnerships that engage businesses and other anchor institutions, in addition to funding existing city efforts like its network of public computer centers and digital literacy courses.
Overview of the dive:
The pandemic has helped shine a light on the ongoing challenges of the digital divide, said Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s deputy chief information officer for innovation management, during a recent virtual press conference.
Over the past two years, the city has had some success in addressing these challenges. In July 2021, 84% of local households had wired and broadband internet access, up from 70% of households in 2019, according to data cited in the Digital Equity Plan.
Local leaders have helped close this gap, in part through Philadelphia’s affordable connectivity program, PHLConnetED, which has provided more than 18,000 free Internet connections to households in kindergarten through 12th grade. Many other cities also moved quickly to bring students and households online early in the pandemic. Leaders in San Francisco installed Wi-Fi “SuperSpots”; Hopewell, Virginia, equipped school buses with Wi-Fi access; and the public libraries of Orange County, California, used trailers to provide broadband.
The five-year plan — created by the Office of Innovation and Technology with input from dozens of community members, organizers and other stakeholders — also includes new data from an evaluation survey Household Internet of 2021. This information highlights disparities in internet access across race, income and age groups: 82% of black households and 77% of Hispanic households reported having a broadband subscription, compared to 88% of white households.
The pandemic has also highlighted issues with device access, according to the Mark Wheeler, City Chief Information Officer, at the press conference. It used to be that some people could get by with just a cellular device, but the pandemic has made that much more difficult as schooling, doctor’s offices and many government services have moved online, Wheeler said.
The plan also found that 86% of white households in the city had a working computer compared to 58% of Spanish speaking households had a working device. Seniors also had a lower rate of broadband subscription (67%) and access to a working device (59%).
Affordability is cited as the main barrier to access. The city found that 42% of people said the cost of the internet or a device was the main reason they weren’t online. Three-quarters of low-income residents surveyed also said spending more than $20 a month to access the internet would be too expensive.
Other barriers include a lack of awareness of discount programs, according to Buss. There’s still a lot of work to be done to help people know their options, he said.
The City of Philadelphia is also prohibited by state law from creating a municipal system. The report suggests getting around this hurdle by leveraging public-private partnerships with community organizations to create neighborhood wireless networks for home access.
For example, to help facilitate a community network to increase access to public Wi-Fi or free or low-cost broadband, the plan calls for the city’s more than 200 recreation centers to be equipped to serve as “digital anchor institution”. This institution would include a campus-wide fiber network and Wi-Fi signal for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood. The plan also includes piloting the use of city assets – including municipal buildings, transportation infrastructure and street furniture – to enable new fixed wireless networks.
Now that the plan has been released, the city plans to work on accepting public feedback and also plans to notify the public of any changes if federal investments change priorities, according to Juliet Fink Yates, inclusion manager. digital at the Office of Innovation and Technology.