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How Cities Are Forging Partnerships to Close the Digital Divide
Published in State Tech Magazine on December 10, 2020
From the article, How Cities Are Forging Partnerships to Close the Digital Divide published in the State Tech online magazine by author Phil Goldstein
The coronavirus pandemic has shined a light on the digital divide, exposing a wide gap between those who have access to broadband internet and those who do not. It’s something that smart city leaders are keenly aware of across the country, and they say it has become clearer than ever that equitable access to connectivity is essential for productivity, economic development, education and public health.
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.
This has a cascading effect on students, and an October report from the National Education Association estimates that a quarter of all school-aged children — about 13.5 million in the U.S. — live in households without broadband access or a computer or tablet.
Amid the pandemic, cities and counties have continued their efforts to close the digital divide by partnering with nonprofit groups, vendors and schools. They have also used data analytics tools to ensure they are actually achieving equity in their efforts to expand connectivity.
Cities Take Steps to Address Digital Equity
Cities and counties are taking a variety of measures to help address the digital divide, recognizing the urgency of the issue.
The pandemic “pulled back the curtain” on the digital divide in San Antonio, city council member Manny Pelaez said in November during a National League of Cities webinar, StateScoop reports. The city had only really started to look into its digital divide in the months before the pandemic started, he said, and had “launched a survey last December, asking residents whether they had connectivity, digital literacy skills and devices to access government services, schoolwork or health care,” according to StateScoop.
As the pandemic unfolded, it became clear in San Antonio that the poorest households needed access to connectivity the most. “We discovered that the determining factor here was income,” Pelaez said. “In very low-income households where the income falls below $20,000, we had 48% of people report they have no internet in their homes.”
The city collected its data in an “Equity Atlas” that “visualizes the aggregated education level, income and primary language of different census tracts in the city,” StateScoop reports. The data revealed that when household incomes rose above $60,000 per year, the digital divide started to close; it also showed a sharp divide in digital equity along racial lines.
In June, San Antonio announced plans to spend $27 million to connect 20,000 school children via existing network infrastructure and personal Wi-Fi hotspots, as StateScoop notes.
“You cannot begin to peel the onion on the problem of digital literacy without having to peel off that layer of race,” Pelaez said. “And it’s an uncomfortable layer to peel off in some places, but you’re not being intellectually honest, you’re not going to solve the problem unless you’re prepared to be comfortable with the discomfort of talking about race.”
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the city is looking to build on emergency efforts put in place earlier this year to make a more lasting impact on closing the digital divide. The city is starting a public-private partnership with schools, technology companies and other city agencies, according to The Arizona Republic.
Th plan is currently in the pilot phase and will be rolled out soon “to apartment complexes where there are high numbers of students who don’t have internet connections,” the newspaper reports. The aim is to eventually bring expanded access to connectivity to the entire 250-square-mile Phoenix Union High School District. Students in all districts in Phoenix would eventually be connected to their schools.
Christine Mackay, director of the city’s community and economic development department, says the goal is to close the digital divide, give workforce training to residents to maintain new wireless infrastructure and help students prepare for jobs in the new economy, the newspaper reports.
“Those students are our workforce of the future … we really succeeded in changing Phoenix into this high-performing, moving economy and we don’t want to go back to the time of low-end call centers as our primary source of economic development,” she said during an October meeting.
In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home to Cleveland, the county in late November issued a request for information for projects and partnerships to help close the digital divide.
Specifically, the county is seeking to identify “ready-to-deploy ideas or projects” for expanded access to broadband that range from “new products and pricing, new service options with discounted rates, free Wi-Fi solutions that residents can reach from their homes, or other innovative approaches employing established or emerging technologies.”
“While a lack of internet connectivity can be seen in all areas of the County, the County recognizes there are specific cities and neighborhoods where a lack of an internet connection is concentrated,” the request reads. “The goal of this RFI is to identify solutions for all County residents, therefore proposed solutions must address underserved areas and avoid ‘cherry picking,’ or building only to the most affluent areas of the County. If possible, the network should also address problems with service and cost in areas that are currently served.”
Cisco Partners with Michigan School Districts
Another project to close the digital divide is getting underway in southeastern Michigan. Cisco Systems is partnering with Merit Network’s Michigan Moonshot initiative to provide Wi-Fi hotspots that will extend connectivity outside of schools and public libraries, with 50 sites identified. The goal is to allow students and parents to access the networks in cars and in a socially distant manner during the pandemic.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau cited by Cisco, Detroit’s public schools have the highes number of households in Michigan without internet access, at 82,894, and the Flint City School District has the second highest, with 14,221 households without internet access. Fifty-seven percent of K–12 students in the state’s Washtenaw County do not have high speed Wi-Fi access at home.
The project is supported through Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration program, which works with governments and academic institutions around the world to expand broadband access. Guy Diedrich, a Cisco vice president and global innovation officer for the company, tells StateTech that as governments look to close digital divides around the globe and across the U.S., they need to focus less on turf battles and more on delivering outcomes for those in need.
Local and state governments have a clear role to play, he says, because they are closest to the problem and the people. “The government is uniquely suited as — in the best terms — the servant of the people,” he says. “The people of that community are the direct customers of that government. That isn’t necessarily the case for Cisco or academia.”
Cisco believes that being connected is “a fundamental human right. Period, full stop,” Diedrich says.
The novel coronavirus is not likely going to be the last infectious disease that will spread around the world, Diedrich says, and “this isn’t the last time when being connected will be critical to one’s health, one’s security, one’s safety, one’s education.”
“To deny connectivity, to deny access, is at this point immoral,” Diedrich says. Expanded connectivity also should not benefit those who already have a higher place on the socioeconomic ladder, he says, because that will make the have-nots become “invisible.”
Expanding access to those who are not connected to broadband will spur a faster economic recovery in the U.S., Diedrich argues.
“If nothing else comes out of COVID, what needs to come out of it is an inclusive future,” Diedrich says. “That has got to be the mantra. Not just for every single government, but every single company and every single academic institution throughout the world. CIOs of cities and counties and states should have that as the No. 1 priority of their missions moving forward for at least the next decade."