(Photo courtesy of Flickr user when I was a bird, used under a Creative Commons license)
The ongoing pandemic both illuminates and aggravates many of our society’s inequities. One of these is the disparity in Philadelphians’ access to the internet.
The digital divide is not new, but our present crisis exacerbates the damage it inflicts. For example, as schools have shut down to prevent infection, online education has cut off many low-income students from learning. Students without reliable internet access at home must gather at restaurants or even Wi-Fi-equipped school buses in order to keep up with lessons.
At Community Legal Services, we are seeing firsthand that lack of internet access harms many other constituencies as well, including people with disabilities and people seeking jobless benefits. And the disparities encompass more than just internet access. Even reliable phone service can be difficult for many low-income families to maintain. Policymakers need to do much more to support many forms of remote access to services in Philadelphia.
At Community Legal Services, our staff represent low-income Philadelphians struggling with a variety of legal needs ranging from family law to employment to housing and more. During the pandemic, reliable internet and phone services are essential for our clients to resolve their legal issues. There are many examples: Parents who have lost custody of their kids need access to the internet in order to visit with them by video chat; people applying for unemployment benefits need access to the internet or phone service in order to apply; people paying for utility bills or applying for customer assistance and grant programs need access to phone or internet to apply; and people who receive Social Security benefits need an email address to get the stimulus money.
We only see small facets of a vast problem. In Philadelphia, around 38% of households with annual income less than $20,000 don’t have any internet subscription at home. Although public schools moved to virtual learning during the pandemic, in May only 57% of students in Philly were participating in online learning, partly due to lack of internet access. Philadelphia schools are planning for remote learning to continue through the fall. How can students without reliable internet access hope to keep up? Unsurprisingly, disparate access to the internet disproportionately harms Black and Latinx communities. Black and Latinx adults are less likely than white adults to have broadband internet service at home, and they are more likely to rely on a smartphone for their only connection to the internet.
Inadequate support for remote access
The handful of programs that currently exist to fill this need are undersubscribed and inadequate. The federal government funds a program called Lifeline to subsidize phone and internet service for low income Americans. Lifeline recipients receive a monthly discount towards a basic service plan. Although this program has been available for decades, in Pennsylvania only 26% of eligible households are participating as of 2018 data. The minimum service requirements are inadequate for data-intensive remote services such as video chats.
In addition, it can be a challenge for people to maintain their Lifeline benefits. Subscribers have to regularly recertify their eligibility for the program, and that can be especially challenging for low-income families that move frequently and don’t have stable, long-term addresses. During the pandemic, actually signing up for service has become more difficult. In normal times, service providers send sales teams into communities to find customers and tend to show up regularly at certain spots such as government agency offices. But now these sales teams have become difficult to find instead.
Comcast offers a program called Internet Essentials, which provides a low-cost home internet subscription to low-income households. For $9.95 a month plus tax, a family can get a 25mb/s internet connection and a modem/router. Comcast is offering the first two months of service for free through 2020. Comcast will also sell Internet Essentials participants a computer for $150, and all Internet Essentials customers are eligible for free training on computer and internet skills from Comcast.
Unfortunately, the Internet Essentials program has a few limitations — including that a household that owes money to Comcast isn’t eligible. Comcast has waived the back-debt limitation through the end of 2020, due to the current pandemic crisis, but this is a component of the program that has kept some households from obtaining affordable internet service and will continue to do so after the waiver no longer applies. As with the Lifeline program, participation in Internet Essentials remains stubbornly low. Comcast reported the “penetration rate” in Philadelphia of Internet Essentials (the percent of the estimated eligible population that actually uses the program) as 15% in 2015.
Internet hotspots are also scattered around the city. Some are public, run by the city. Others are privately operated. Some private companies, such as Comcast and AT&T, have granted the public free access to these during the crisis. While it is beneficial that these hotspots are available, the hotspots appear more densely in Philadelphia’s downtown than in low-income neighborhoods.
The City of Philadelphia announced on Aug. 6 a partnership to offer internet service for free to 35,000 households with K-12 students. The program will provide Internet Essentials for home broadband service, and “a high-speed mobile hotspot for families who are housing-insecure.” PHLConnectED plans to offer some form of “digital navigators” to support families’ new Internet connections
These programs undoubtedly help, but they do not go far enough. Service levels are too low for the all-remote world of the pandemic. Minutes and data run out, or speeds are too slow, when you live your whole life on a service plan designed for minimum pre-pandemic requirements. And other barriers to adoption remain, including cost, location (in the case of hotspots), and digital skills. Many households besides those with school-aged children also need remote access to services. If companies do not renew their waivers of rules, such as Comcast’s rule barring households with back debt from Internet Essentials, additional obstacles to access will reemerge.
The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology compiled a helpful catalog of programs that exist. But it is clear that today’s patchwork of minimum services isn’t enough to meet today’s urgent needs.
Access for everyone
All Philadelphians must be able to carry out essential remote activities such as education and accessing government services during this emergency. Closing the gap in remote access requires us to expand the communications services that exist. We must also support diverse means for reaching services, recognizing that no single technology will be the best option for everyone.
- The Federal Communications Commission should increase the maximum allowable Lifeline subsidy beyond $9.25 per month, and the minimum service requirements should cover more data on a monthly basis.
- There are several federal proposals that deserve a place in Congress’s next stimulus package, including, but not limited to, expanding broadband subsidies and funding grant programs for community broadband development.
- Philadelphia needs additional internet access points around the city, particularly in communities with few public hotspots, and private service providers need to improve the speeds they offer through programs like Internet Essentials.
- Finally, in addition closing the digital divide, it is critical that government agencies support non-internet based means of accessing essential services. The internet may not always be the best means for everyone to access every service or government benefit.
For some of our clients, adding an internet service subscription, learning to use new devices and new software, and managing eligibility for yet another bureaucratic program, are obstacles that get in the way of immediate goals of maintaining income and housing and staying connected with family. Reading English can be a struggle for non-native English speakers and people with limited literacy. A phone call with a human being may be a more accessible option for some Philadelphians. While a web portal should be one of multiple, equally well-supported entry points, well-trained human beings answering phones should be a co-equal entry point for service.
It is beyond doubt that internet access is an essential service today. But for many of us, the internet is not the destination. It is one of a number of important pathways leading to school, income support, healthcare, and many other services. It needs maintenance and widening, as do its parallel tracks such as call centers and physical offices. The destination is a city where all of us have the chance to have a safe place to live, a steady income, and accessible, quality education.-30-
Comcast is bringing business-speed Wi-Fi to Philly rec centers
Nerd Street Gamers is building a massive HQ and esports campus blocks from City Hall
Data pros: Here’s how to be a better business partner to non-technical stakeholders
CIONET, a global professional org for senior IT pros, is expanding to the Philly region
Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly Philadelphia