Civic News
Digital access / Municipal government / Nonprofits

The new Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition is tackling the region’s digital divide

About a dozen government entities and nonprofits are collaborating on the initiative. First up: a five-year plan by Q2 2023.

Mayor Ed Gainey speaks during a press conference on the new Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition. (Screenshot via YouTube)
Update: Comment from Meta Mesh Executive Director Colby Hollabaugh has been added. (9/30/22, 4:45 p.m.)

Leaders with Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh want to ensure that the digital word isn’t only available to a select few in the region. But tackling the issue will take teamwork: The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission reported that as of 2022, residents in the county have both some of the highest internet speeds in the region, and areas with inadequate internet speeds or few service options.

With that in mind, this week elected officials announced the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition, a collaboration between nonprofits, universities and technologists with firsthand experience “bridging the digital divide.”

“We know all too well how innovation and transformation can leave communities behind, but in order to give everybody opportunities, we will work together united with the city and my partner in the county, Rich Fitzgerald, our foundations, nonprofits, and the private sector with one mission to connect our entire city and close the digital gap,” Mayor Ed Gainey said at a Tuesday press conference.

The coalition includes entities such as the Greater Pittsburgh Digital Inclusion Alliance, Computer Reach, University of Pittsburgh and Meta Mesh Wireless Communities (soon to be renamed to Community Internet Solutions). By combining the government’s influence and organizations’ understanding of how to get low-cost, reliable broadband internet access to those who need it, coalition members hope to eliminate digital inequity by the end of 2027.

The announcement comes as the newly formed Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority is also gearing up to disperse tens of millions in federal funding to orgs working across the state toward similar goals.

All of these organizations really laid it out on the ground over the course of the pandemic, to help our communities be able to connect in the way they needed to to access services.

The Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition builds in part on the 2015 Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, a project led by the Hillman Foundation. Now with the world more digital than ever — think: the rise of virtual programs, pandemic-prompted remote schooling and widespread remote work — the time is now to take everything that’s been learned in the past few years to close the region’s digital divide, according to the coalition’s leaders.

In the interest of leaving no digital gap unaddressed, Heidi Norman, director the City’s Innovation and Performance department, explained that during this process, city and county are relying on external orgs and institutions to show the best way forward.

“All of these organizations really laid it out on the ground over the course of the pandemic, to help our communities be able to connect in the way they needed to to access services,” Norman said. (The nonprofit Meta Mesh, for instance, has completed about 100 installations through its free Every1online initiative.) “I’m really proud to say that they are coming together to create a five-year plan to close the digital divide across the county.”

Meta Mesh Executive Director Colby Hollabaugh told that his org got involved in the coalition because its leadership believes cross-sector partnership is essential to bring digital equity to all Pittsburghers.

“Alone, Meta Mesh is an equitable internet provider; however digital equity means more than just secure access, it also includes devices and literacy training to support its use,” Hollabaugh wrote in an email. “We know that through the combined work of these equity-focused coalitions, we will be able to ensure our community’s total digital equity needs are met. Further, as more organizations come together, we can involve more diverse community voices to ensure we build solutions with our community, not for them.”

While the coalition’s formal five-year plan isn’t expected until the second quarter of 2023, currently its strategy will be focused on connecting all residents to reliable internet access, access to accommodating computing devices, digital skills that prepare them to safely use the internet, and accessible tech support.

“We want to bring people who aren’t connected to the economy to be connected to all the services, and [have] the access to all the amenities that are out there that often only happen digitally,” County Executive Fitzgerald said at the press conference.

Besides those listed above, coalition participants include:

  • A+ Schools
  • Allegheny County Housing Authority
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
  • Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh
  • Literacy Pittsburgh
  • Neighborhood Allies
  • Pittsburgh Public Schools
  • Pittsburgh Regional Transit
  • United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

Watch the full press conference here:

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Computer Reach / City of Pittsburgh / Meta Mesh Wireless Communities / University of Pittsburgh / United Way of Central Maryland

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