- The city of Philadelphia last week released its first digital equity plan, a five-year plan that addresses local issues with barriers to affordable and accessible broadband and devices. The city also announced an executive order intended to address those needs.
- The digital equity plan maps out four key goals, which include ensuring residents can access affordable technology devices; helping local residents access and afford the internet; developing residents’ digital skills; and growing and sustaining the city’s capacity and infrastructure to improve digital equity.
- The plan also calls for city leaders to engage with the state about 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 inequities via public-private partnerships that engage businesses and other anchor institutions, in addition to funding existing city efforts like its public computing center network and digital literary courses.
The pandemic helped illuminate the digital divide's ongoing challenges, said Philadelphia's Deputy Chief Information Officer for Innovation Management Andrew Buss during a recent virtual press conference.
Over the past two years, the city has experienced some success with addressing those challenges. As of July 2021, 84% percent of local households had wired and high-speed internet, compared with 70% of households in 2019, according to data cited in the digital equity plan.
Local leaders have helped close that gap, in part through Philadelphia's affordable connectivity program, PHLConnetED, which has provided more than 18,000 free internet connections to pre-K through 12th-grade households. Many other cities also moved quickly to get students and households online at the start of the pandemic. Leaders in San Francisco installed Wi-Fi “SuperSpots”; Hopewell, Virginia, outfitted school buses with Wi-Fi access; and public libraries in Orange County, California, used trailers to provide broadband.
The five-year plan – created by the Office of Innovation and Technology with the input of dozens of community members, organizers, and other stakeholders – also includes fresh data from a 2021 household internet assessment survey. That 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 with 88% of White households.
The pandemic has also highlighted issues with access to devices, according to the city’s Chief Information Officer Mark Wheeler during the press conference. Previously, some people might have gotten by with just a cellular device, but the pandemic has made that a lot more difficult as schooling, medical offices, and many government services have moved online, Wheeler said.
The plan also found that 86% of the city's White households had a working computer compared with 58% of Spanish-speaking Hispanic households that 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 key barrier to access. The city found that 42% of people said the cost of the internet or a device is the main reason they aren't online. Three-quarters of low-income residents surveyed also said that spending more than $20 a month for internet access would be too expensive.
Other obstacles include a lack of awareness about discount programs, according to Buss. There’s still a lot of work to do to help people know about their options, he said.
The city of Philadelphia is also prohibited by state law from creating a municipal network. The report suggests getting around that barrier by leveraging public-private partnerships with community-based organizations to create neighborhood wireless networks for home access.
For example, to help facilitate a community-based 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 outfitted to serve as a “digital anchor institution.” That institution would include a fiber network and campuswide Wi-Fi signal to benefit the surrounding neighborhood. The plan also calls for 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 commentary and also anticipates updating the public with any changes if federal investments shift priorities, according to Juliet Fink Yates, digital inclusion manager in the Office of Innovation and Technology.