DC faces challenges in trying to bridge the digital divide and expand internet access – TheDCLine.org

Throughout the pandemic, the DC council has heard calls to provide reliable high-speed internet access to all residents who need it. But achieving such a goal is not as easy as it seems.

As people across the country migrated to Zoom and other online platforms for work and school in the spring of 2020, the inequitable nature of internet access has become undeniable. Not only could the wealthiest people afford stable, reliable, high-speed internet access to stay connected to their work and online classes, they were also more likely to maintain their income through remote work. On the other hand, people with low incomes often find it difficult to keep up with this new rhythm of virtual life, either because of the cost or the lack of Internet service in their neighborhood.

Data recently released by the Pew Research Center reveals the extent of this problem in the United States. From a month of August investigation, 39% of high-income broadband Internet service users reported having connectivity problems “sometimes” or “often”, compared to 60% of low-income users. In the same survey, 6% of high-income broadband users said they were worried about how to pay for their internet connection, compared to 46% of low-income users. The figures for middle-income broadband users were 47% and 23%, respectively.

At the local level, the disparities are even more extreme. While only 13% of DC residents overall do not subscribe to Internet services, this percentage is three times higher in neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates. About a third of people living in neighborhoods 7 and 8 – where the poverty rate hovers around 30% – do not have an Internet subscription. In Ward 5, where the poverty rate is just over 15%, almost a quarter of people do not subscribe to Internet services.

The DC government has stepped up efforts to tackle the problem since the start of the pandemic. In September 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a $ 3.3 million Free Internet initiative – Internet for all – designed to connect students with free 12-month subscriptions to services provided by Comcast or RCN. Last summer, the district set aside $ 26.5 million in federal funding to expand Internet accessibility by providing devices such as computers and tablets to those in need.

In recent months, the DC Council has explored ways to close this access gap, commonly referred to as the digital divide. In April, 10 members presented legislation Calling for the creation of a digital equity division within the office of the chief technology officer to study the impact of internet access on households in the district.

The implementation of some of the measures envisaged by the bill presents several challenges. To a government operations and facilities committee hearing held on October 20, local officials and representatives of various Washington-based nonprofits discussed ways to tackle the problem. While there was a broad consensus that affordable broadband internet service should be available to everyone, the discussion became bogged down in debates about what could be termed ‘high speed’ and whether the legislation local government could hamper potential federal funding. Some participants argued that President Joe Biden infrastructure bill – still under negotiation in the Senate – could offer solutions to the problem that local officials are trying to solve on their own.

General Council member Robert White, who chairs the committee and co-introduced the Internet Equity Amendment Act of 2021, pointed out that the issue of Internet access affects a large demographic.

“It’s not just households with school-aged children who need affordable internet connections. Most households need it now, ”White said at the hearing, which itself was held virtually via Zoom.

Anyone who does not have adequate internet access, he added, is likely to have problems finding a job, participating in online training and accessing telehealth services.

White’s sentiment was echoed by others who raised similar concerns in their testimony at the hearing.

“What may appear to be simple technological challenges have major substantial impacts, especially when experienced in the context of an attempt to participate in remote hearings, to request benefits or to access government services. essential, ”said Legal Aid lawyer Zenia Laws. DC Company.

Laws went on to recount the challenges many clients face when trying to attend virtual court proceedings and other critical online events.

But as several participants pointed out, simply expanding Internet access does not solve all the problems created by the digital divide. Speaking briefly at the hearing, Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen – another co-initiator of the Internet Equity Amendment Act – pointed to a related issue.

“In some cases, fast internet is available, but it is either a family’s budget or a financial burden that prevents them from spending money on other necessities,” he said. he declares.

Data collected by the US Census Bureau through the American community survey shows a strong correlation between household income and Internet subscriptions in the District. From 2014 to 2018, 51% of DC households earning less than $ 20,000 did not subscribe to Internet services. By comparison, only 6% of households earning more than $ 75,000 did not have an Internet subscription.

The average monthly cost of broadband internet in the city in 2020 was around $ 70, according to a to study led by the New America think tank. Prices vary, however, depending on speed and provider.

Members of Byte Back, a local advocacy group focused on digital literacy, testified that some households in the city are paying up to $ 200 per month for the internet services they need.

At the start of the hearing, Allen cited similar concerns in calling on the city to identify a basic internet speed that meets the needs of all of its residents.

“Although we cannot regulate ISPs [internet service providers], we can certainly set a target for what our own programs will do, ”he said.

But as CTO Lindsey Parker pointed out, setting a benchmark speed for broadband access is no easy task.

This is because ISPs have no way of guaranteeing the speed of their services at all times.

“They say they provide some speed, [but] they can’t guarantee they’re going to deliver that speed every minute, ”Parker said.

There is an inherent limitation in bandwidth, which depends on many variables, including the number of people accessing the service at any given time, according to Parker.

Parker also discussed DC-Net, which the city owns and operates. Comprised of approximately 800 miles of fiber, this network is connected to 650 buildings and provides Internet access to a range of organizations, including some federal agencies. She said her office was investigating whether the city could take advantage of this existing infrastructure to provide internet services to its residents.

There are about 3,000 households in the district that have no high-speed internet access, according to Parker. Since this lack of access affects a relatively small part of the city’s population, she said, the big challenge is not infrastructure but rather the adoption of internet services.

“There is a significant number of residents who lack the digital literacy skills to engage in basic online tasks like job hunting, telehealth sessions and government digital benefits,” said she declared.

Robert Oliver, president of the Friends of the DC Public Library, said free computers and Wi-Fi are two of the most sought-after services provided by the library system. Many visitors endure long waits or even line up to access a computer, he said, and some even use Wi-Fi hanging out at library branches when they are closed.

While most of the people who testified at the hearing said they agreed with the spirit of expanding broadband internet access, some were concerned about the unintended effects of adoption. new local legislation.

Laura Miller Brooks, a senior transportation and infrastructure associate at Federal City Council, a pro-business civil rights group, called for actions that could make it difficult for the city to take advantage of any federal funding made available by Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“Because we have this opportunity, I think we should be very careful about how our local recommendations align with some of these federal opportunities to catalyze this work,” Brooks explained.

Parker told White she agreed that was a reason to be cautious.

“The only caveat I want to give you and your colleagues as you consider this topic important is that we have a very opportune time to use federal funds to bridge this gap,” the director said. of technology.

While agreeing that it was “prudent” to consider the potential for federal funding, White cautioned against waiting for something that has not yet been approved.

Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz, among other lawmakers, have opposed parts of the $ 1.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes increased investment in bridges, roads and railways as well as the expansion of broadband internet. The bill – criticized by Republicans as overpriced but hailed by supporters as full of essential investments – has hit a number of roadblocks in Congress since its introduction this summer.

Meanwhile, the local bill introduced in April calls for a series of actions. Within 90 days of enactment, OCTO is expected to deliver a detailed report to council regarding Internet accessibility in the city. The report would also require the identification of households that do not have an Internet connection and a recommendation on minimum connection speeds.

As drafted, the bill would also set a six-month deadline to ensure that families earning less than 50% of median family income do not pay more than 0.5% of their household income for a service with recommended internet speeds. One year after the law was enacted, OCTO is expected to provide a master plan to council on how to provide accessible high-speed Internet access to all residents of the district.

“We cannot delay indefinitely,” White said. “If that window closes, we can’t say, ‘Well, let’s wait until the next time it opens.’ I think it is fair to understand what the federal government could do. But I also think that if we’re going to see it, we’re going to see it relatively soon.


This article was co-edited with Street Sense Media.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and the DC line. The first year of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Fellowship for Media and Journalism, the Nash Foundation and individual contributors.


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