Toward Equity: Internet Access is a Right not a Privilege
In 2005, I was manager of the Cleveland Executive Fellowship for the Cleveland Foundation. One of the fellows was a young African American woman with an MA in Technology. One week during a discussion, I used the term “digital literacy,” which was in vogue at the time.
During a break, S. pulled me aside.
“Lynne, we can’t talk about technology and literacy in the same sentence. Literacy refers to mastering a static skill. Once you teach someone to read, they can read. Yes, they can become better, more sophisticated readers, but they can read. In technology the changes are exponential. Every day that a person is not digitally engaged, digitally savvy, they fall further and further behind. They are standing at the foot of the staircase and everyone else is on an escalator.”
That conversation in 2005, led me to be on the look out for “digital divide” challenges. What systems are we putting in place that will exclude people? How do we ensure that we don’t leave some people at the bottom of the stairs?
While I served on City Council, we introduced a parking app through which you could pay to park anywhere in the city on your phone. It was one of those win-win-win-win pitches:
· Convenient for users, and the 85-cent service charge probably would not feel like a big deal to many users (a bit of class bias there);
· Free to the city, including the hand-held devices municipal workers use to check that the parking fees have been paid;
· Less staff time to empty meters and less opportunity for malfeasance (a nearby town had just uncovered a $400,000 theft over many years by staff on the parking meter beat. I still cannot picture someone depositing 20 pounds of coins a week into their personal account without raising red flags, but local government can be a strange place);
· And in recognition of the digital divide, the parking app stickers were placed on the existing meters, which still took quarters.
But like most things in the pandemic, within a matter of days, the “digital divide” became a chasm right before our eyes. From a small river that we could wade across or rock hop, we discovered the divide was actually the size of the Grand Canyon.
I am incredibly lucky to live in a community in which a local pastor—native daughter—community leader organized a call of faith leaders, non-profit executives and city leaders the moment the lockdown started. Fifteen months later, we still zoom weekly and our ranks keep growing. It is literally “must see zoom.” We discussed and responded to food security, covid testing, mental health needs, all the way through to vaccine access.
At about week 8 or 10, we invited school administrators to the calls to tell us what was going on and how we could help. The news from our school leaders was heartening, terrifying and grim:
· It was heartening to learn that a teacher saw one of her students eating mayonnaise on bread. On inquiring she discovered that this was the last food in the house. His mom was so terrified to go out, that they had run out of everything. The teacher delivered a bag of groceries to the front porch that day and our community folks put the family on a list to get regular food deliveries from the sheriff’s office.
· It was terrifying to learn that 2 months into the lockdown approximately 15% of the children had not been heard from at all.
· And it was grim to discover that we had barely made a dent in our community’s digital divide.
o There were rookie mistakes like asking imprecise questions on technology surveys. For example, asking if you have a computer at home, does not tell you if there are enough computers for all the kids and adults who need one at the same time. And can you access the internet could mean “from my phone with very expensive minutes.”
We were still getting the right tools to children (laptops and hot spots) 2 months into the lockdown! And some students were doing their homework on their phones in the school parking lot to access the school’s wifi.
Here it was—the Grand Canyon. Nearby districts that had instituted 1 device to 1 students tech plans several years earlier, didn’t have a smooth transition to online learning, but they knew every kid had the tools for online learning. Where those students may have lost a week or so as teachers geared up, some children in my town lost months.
In June, my weekly call friends and I began to ask:
Is cheap or free digital access a right or a privilege?
We set out to try to get the City, the School District and a number of private schools in the community to pool some of their CARES Act money to provide free wifi in our lowest income census tracts. In our research we discovered that it is not as expensive as you might imagine. But, it sounded radical; people were very skeptical; and no one wanted to part with any money.
We failed last summer. However, “the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”
· In the American Rescue Plan there is money to subsidize internet access for low-income households. You can learn about it and apply here: https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit
· In the Biden-Harris proposed American Jobs Plan, broadband is listed as infrastructure along side roads, bridges and clean water.
And a small city of 17,000 people, Ammon, Idaho runs its own fiber optic network. Their residents pay $26 a month for better internet access and speeds than most corporations. You can hear how they did it on this great podcast: How to Citizen with Baratunde: https://www.stitcher.com/episode/83920157 (check out more of his episodes as well).
I am going to make sure that my City’s Administrator and elected officials learn how Ammon did it and start to imagine a community in which there is no digital divide.
And Greater Bergen Community Action is exploring ways we can partner with communities and housing developments to ensure low cost, outstanding internet access to all their residents.