COVID crisis reinforces need for universal broadband access to address inequities
SEATTLE – Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4, Northeast Seattle), and Chair of the Council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee, has crafted a Resolution charting the course for universal internet access in Seattle. The Resolution requests the city government, led by Seattle’s Information Technology department, to craft an action plan, expand partnerships, and ensure the implementation of Internet for All, so that all Seattle residents have affordable and reliable internet access.
“In a city that prides itself in leading the world in technology, the COVID crisis has laid bare the inequities and injustice of the Digital Divide,” said Pedersen, whose committee includes oversight of Seattle’s Information Technology department). “We can no longer allow limited internet access to prevent learning, to impede our workers, or to hinder our small businesses and nonprofits. It’s time to ensure reliable and affordable access to the internet as part of our city’s vital infrastructure for social justice, for education, and for economic development. It’s time for Internet for All.”
The COVID-19 crisis and the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order magnified the disparities in our city along many lines, including access to broadband internet. Pedersen’s resolution outlines the vision of making broadband internet service accessible, reliable and affordable to all residents and nonprofits. Increased access to the internet will increase access to key services and opportunities such as education, job training, unemployment assistance, and resources for those seeking relief during times of crisis.
“Inequities in internet access can lead to disparate outcomes during a crisis, including reduced access to relief programs for families and reduced access to remote learning for students,” said Caitlen Daniels, President & Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit Solid Ground whose mission is to “end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions.” “Access to the internet has become a fundamental way people participate in society and civic life. This proposal will move us closer toward equitable internet access. The alternative is reinforcing an immovable barrier thousands of our neighbors face to full participation in communities and full access to community resources.”
While the Seattle’s Technology Access study in 2018 showed overall improvements in internet access, residents who are low-income, senior citizens, living with disabilities, or for whom English is not their primary language, significantly lag other groups when it comes to access. The “key risk factors” the study identifies for lack of home internet access are:
- Living in poverty: 5 times more likely to not have internet access,
- Household member with a disability: 3 times more likely to not have internet access,
- Primary language other than English: 2 times more likely to not have access,
- Older adults (65 years old or more): 1.8 times more likely to not have access,
- Non-white residents: 1.6 times more likely to not have internet access.
According to the same 2018 study, there is low awareness of the discount programs developed for low-income populations — only half know about the programs and just 23% of households that would qualify for them actually use them. Of those 23%, more than half said that the service was too expensive, while 34% cited issues with the quality or speed of their service.
Recent statements in the media reinforce the need to address the digital divide:
- Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said, “Access to internet is an equity issue for our students and educators, and it is intensified by this crisis.” (Source: Washington State Department of Commerce, May 7, 2020.)
- Seattle Times editorial board writer Jennifer Hemmingsen wrote, “This is a clarifying moment. The closure of schools, workplaces, public libraries and private businesses has pushed the technology gap into stark relief.” (Source: Seattle Times, May 8, 2020).
As we enter a challenging budgetary environment, Pedersen wants to update the assumptions about financial risk, competitive challenges, economic development benefits, and partnership opportunities to achieve universal broadband. Pedersen’s Resolution seeks cost estimates, lessons learned from other jurisdictions that have attempted municipal broadband, infrastructure needs, a Race and Social Justice analysis to ensure equitable distribution of the affordable access, and partnerships that can accelerate implementation of the Internet for All Action Plan.
The Resolution requests Seattle’s Information Technology Department to provide its first report to the City Council Transportation & Utilities (and technology) Committee by September 16, 2020 with existing and short-term solutions to increase access equitably, followed by subsequent reports for the longer term, sustainable solutions of the Action Plan.
Pedersen’s proposed Resolution can be heard in his Transportation & Utilities Committee when the Governor’s order has been lifted for all local governments to consider non-COVID-19 legislation. For more information on this topic in the future, please visit Alex Pedersen’s blog: https://pedersen.seattle.gov/.
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