Civic News

DC just launched a new Community Internet Program for affordable broadband

The new initiative will allow providers to freely use DC's rooftops as long as they commit to providing district residents with affordable internet.

Mayor Bowser answers questions about the new Community Internet Program at a press conference.

(Photo by Michaela Althouse)

Update: This article has been updated to mention WAMU/DCist reporter Jenny Gathright's tweeted photo of an alleged letter about unsafe living conditions at Potomac Gardens. (5/17/22 12:57 p.m.)
Today, DC government and broadband provider WeLink kicked off Infrastructure Week by launching several new initiatives for affordable broadband in DC.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, DC CTO Lindsey Parker and WeLink announced the creation of the Community Internet Program, which will offer internet service providers access to city-owned rooftops. The rooftops will be offered at no cost if providers commit to offering reduced- or no-cost internet service to qualifying households in the district. The idea is that the service can be beneficial for households and act as hubs within DC neighborhoods.

WeLink will start developing the neighborhood hubs in Wards 5, 7 and 8, beginning with the Trinidad neighborhood, in the next month. Households need to be eligible for Biden’s Affordable Connectivity Program to qualify.

“We were focused even before the pandemic on bridging the digital divide, but now we know that that work is even more urgent,” Bowser said at an event announcing the program. “The world has moved online in even bigger ways. In fact, the pandemic fast-tracked that for learning, for jobs-seeking, for health.”

The program launch event took place at Potomac Gardens Family and Senior Housing, the location of another $1 million pilot project for affordable internet in DC. The building was recently activated for free in-home Wi-Fi in conjunction with the DC Housing Authority and is powered by provider ETTE. The free Wi-Fi will be available at the Potomac Gardens building, Hopkins Apartments (also in the Southeast and going online next week) and a third yet-to-be-announced location. Tech Together DC‘s website said that it will additionally be hosting digital literacy programs for residents that cover such topics as privacy, computer safety and social media.

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As it works to add additional buildings and properties through the program, Parker said affordability from providers will be a priority. All partnering providers will be required to participate in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which President Joe Biden recently announced had enlisted 20 providers. These companies will also be required to provide connections that reach at least 200 megabits-per-second when downloading and uploading.

Together, Parker said, the partners will look to provide the service to every address in DC, beginning with the neighborhoods that need it most.

“We knew that solving for the digital divide in DC was not going to be easy,” Parker said during the launch event. “And the past two years only served to amplify the urgency with which we needed to act, and we also knew that we couldn’t solve it once.”

So far, the city has $15 million in federal funds to plan for internet deployment around DC, Parker said. It will also obtain $100 million over the next five years via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Parker will also co-chair the Technology Innovation Subcommittee, within the Build Back Better Infrastructure Task Force that Bowser previously created, which will oversee how those funds are spent and plan for broadband across the city.

“Making sure that every single resident in Washington, DC has access to the internet wherever they are is critical to making sure that we create that ecosystem that we know we are on the cusp of making great,” Parker told Technical.ly after the event.

The city will also be adding a new State Broadband and Digital Equity Office within Parker’s office, which will build a roadmap and oversee the execution of projects like community internet. The office’s first task will be ensuring that internet service providers follow through on their commitment to boosting digital equity and affordable service.

The new funds and initiatives offer DC the chance to be more equitable within its tech ecosystem and build inclusion into the city’s tech scene while it grows, Parker said.

“Some people talk about us competing with Silicon Valley. I like to say that we’re going to rewrite the way that Silicon Valley thinks,” Parker told Technical.ly. “We’re thinking about inclusive innovation here in Washington DC, and we have a unique situation to really rethink the way that technology rebuilds trust in governments, in institutions, in media — and we can do that in a place that is so mission-driven like Washington DC residents are.”

Not all of the people that this initiative could benefit are impressed, though. After the press event, WAMU/DCist reporter Jenny Gathright tweeted a photo of what she said was a letter that Potomac Gardens residents passed to the mayor. The letter details serious concerns about rodent infestation, black mold and other public health hazards within the public housing complex.

“Wifi is a great concept, but, we face more tragic circumstances,” the letter reads.

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