(Photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat, used under a Creative Commons license)
Digital access has been a flashpoint throughout the pandemic, as existing inequities along the lines of broadband connections and device availability were laid bare amid the shift to virtual, in D.C. and elsewhere. As the reality set in that lower-income communities and communities of color were being disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and the digital divide, it brought a response.
Within days of remote schooling beginning, for instance, Comcast began offering two months of free internet through its Internet Essentials program; that offer has since been extended. The telecomms giant has also doubled its download speed as of March.
D.C.’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) also pledged to connect 25,000 student households to free internet access. About 9,000 students had signed on through the Internet for All Initiative as of February, according to the D.C. Policy Center.
To further the work done by these pandemic-prompted programs, Councilmember Charles Allen of Ward 6 and nine other councilmembers on Tuesday introduced bill B24-0200, dubbed Internet Equity Amendment Act of 2021.
The legislation would create a Digital Equity Division within OCTO. This division’s tasks, split into its first and second six months, would broadly seek to assess the need for, and then implement affordable, high-speed internet services for the long term.
Here’s what it would tackle immediately, with language from Allen’s office:
- Identify and set a minimum internet speed that will allow all District residents to work or take classes from home — a standard that the bill requires to be updated at least every two years;
- Take an inventory of how easy it is to access online applications for District services and benefits;
- Identify households that are not connected to the internet at all, or connected at a speed too slow to work or take classes from home;
- Identify lower-income households that are connected at a reasonable speed but are paying too much — defined by Councilmember Allen as any household paying more than 0.5% of monthly income, or just over $25 a month for family of four earning $63,000 annually
- Actually connect those who aren’t connected at a reasonable speed, and ensure that households below half of the area median income are both connected at a reasonable speed and paying a reasonable amount each month. This would be done either through expanding the District’s existing Wi-Fi network or working with private internet service providers.
After this first six months, OCTO would be tasked with creating a plan that “evaluates our existing infrastructure and ensures that all District residents remain connected to internet at a speed that allows them to keep up with the pace of our online lives — including work and school online,” the bill reads.
One option could be to create a municipal broadband service — look to Longmont, Colorado, but not Philadelphia, for an example of what that could look like. Another could be to partner longer-term with existing ISPs. Public meetings will be prioritized throughout the plan-making process, per the councilmember’s office.
The legislation could also lead to a new role within the city, as the bill proposes the office to be led by the a new District director of digital equity. It’s similar to a leadership position we recently saw in Baltimore, where recently-elected Mayor Brandon Scott created a director of broadband and digital equity role to coordinate efforts between the city and stakeholders.
The D.C. bill’s co-introducers are Brooke Pinto, Christina Henderson, Janeese Lewis George, Robert White Jr., Elissa Silverman, Vincent Gray, Mary Cheh, Brianne Nadeau and Chairman Phil Mendelson. As of Tuesday, the bill has been referred to Committee on Government Operations and Facilities.
“We knew before the pandemic that many DC residents were falling behind because reliable and fast internet service wasn’t even an option in their home or neighborhood. Now, after a year with much of our daily lives moved online, it’s clear we cannot continue to treat access to broadband and reliable Wi-Fi as a luxury only for those who can afford it,” Allen said in a statement. “Often, the gap between households who are moving forward and those being left behind can be measured by the speed of their internet connection.”
.@charlesallen quote & Internet Equity bill highlights issue of inadequate internet speed/bandwidth. Even those w/Internet may not have sufficient speed to support work & online learning platforms. We must ensure internet quality & speed, not just access https://t.co/DdjKLl8A0U
— Digital Equity in DC Education (@DigitalEquityDC) April 6, 2021
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