The PHLConnectED program has operated for a full year and enabled more than 18,700 internet connections for low-income Philly families, the City of Philadelphia announced Monday.
Launched at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, the initiative aims to get K-12 students signed up for free internet access at home, where remote learning had been taking place since schools closed due to COVID-19 in March of last year. The two-year plan formed alongside corporate and philanthropic partners came with a $17 million budget.
The initially stated goal was to connect 35,000 households, and it reached 11,000 by November 2020. When asked about the missed target, Labonno Islam, digital engagement and communications manager for the Office of Innovation and Technology, said that original goal was based on an estimate of how many student households lacked access based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey.
“This data was already two years old, and was out of date, but we needed to make sure we had a solution to cover as many students as possible,” Islam told Technical.ly. To get a more accurate view of the citywide need in year two, the City is partnering with Fort Washington-based communications firm Wilco Electronic Systems on a survey assessing the digital access and internet needs of Philly residents. That data is expected to be shared publicly soon.
The City will continue to share information about PHLConnectED to families via schools as well as “targeted outreach, such as flyering, phone banking, and door-to-door canvassing,” Islam said. Families can also get information about the program by dialing 211.
In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney expressed support for the initiative.
“As we end the first year of PHLConnectED, we’re looking to the future to ensure that the goal towards digital equity across Philadelphia for all residents is delivered,” he said.
Digital access has been a particular focus of national discourse in the past week, thanks to the passage of the U.S. Senate’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Of those funds, $65 billion would go to broadband investment for communities nationwide.
Islam said the City is “very supportive” of the infrastructure bill, including its continuation of the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit, which offers a $50 subsidy for home internet and $100 credit for internet devices for students and families. The program launched in May through the American Rescue Plan. More than 37,000 local residents have enrolled in the program so far, according to the spokesperson.
Via the bill, the City may also benefit from federal grants designated for digital literacy and digital navigation, and the State of Pennsylvania will also see a boost to its broadband office. Last month, Kenney signed a letter to top members of Congress alongside nearly two dozen other U.S. mayors asking that local governments be able to apply directly to the federal government for broadband funding.
PHLConnectED’s $17 million budget is supported by Comcast, William Penn Foundation, Lenfest Foundation, Philadelphia School Partnership and Neubauer Foundation.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 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 Lenfest Institute for Journalism.