COVID-19 crisis reinforces need for universal broadband access and adoption to address inequities
Reinvigorating efforts to pursue universal access to the internet, the City Council approved today the “Internet for All” resolution introduced by Council President M. Lorena Gonzalez (Position 9, Citywide), Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4), and Councilmember Debora Juarez (District 5).
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders magnified the disparities in our city along many lines, including access to the internet. The resolution adopted by the Council outlines its 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.
“While Seattle is proud to be a global center of technology and innovation, The COVID-19 pandemic, once again, exposes the reality of extensive, inequitable, and detrimental gaps of the haves and have nots. This time it is manifested via internet access with significant detrimental impact for our students and families at Seattle Public Schools, our seniors, and low-income households,” said Council President M. Lorena Gonzalez. “I’m pleased to be a co-sponsor on the Internet for All resolution to reinvigorate the city’s commitment to closing the digital access gap so everyone can stay connected in an increasingly virtual, online world.”
“Seattle is a city that rightfully prides itself on world-class technology, but the COVID crisis has laid bare the inequities and injustices of the Digital Divide,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the City Council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee, which includes technology. “We can no longer afford to allow limited access to the internet to prevent learning, to impede our workers, or to hinder our small businesses. It’s time to provide reliable and affordable access to the internet as part of our city’s vital infrastructure for social justice, for education, and for economic development. Passing our resolution today amps up Seattle’s long-term efforts to achieve Internet for All.”
“Today we took a solid step forward,” said Councilmember Debora Juarez. “Inequities in internet access and affordability can lead to disparate outcomes during a crisis, such as reduced access to relief programs for individuals and small neighborhood businesses as well as barriers preventing students from participating in remote learning due to the closures of our schools, libraries, community centers and workplaces. I have long advocated for equity in access by working with groups such as Literacy Source and am pleased to have been a cosponsor on this Resolution.”
While a Technology Access and Adoption Study in 2018 found that 98 percent of households with at least one child who attends Seattle Public Schools have at least one capable internet device, often that access is often only a cell phone. During the COVID pandemic, media reports noted a lack of sufficient access, adoption, reliability, and/or affordability, especially when multiple family members were required to work or study from home. Moreover, seven percent of respondents in that study said they relied on free/public access internet at places such as libraries and community centers, yet those have been closed during the COVID pandemic.
According to 2018 study, those with incomes of less than $25,000 a year are more than three times as likely to rely on a cell phone data plan for internet service. There is low awareness of the discount programs developed for low-income populations — only half know about them and just 23% of low-income households that would qualify for these programs actually use them.
Residents, who are low-income, senior citizens, living with disabilities, or for whom English is not their primary language lag other groups when it comes to access, according to the City’s most recent Digital Equity Progress Report (based on the Technology Access and Adoption Study). The “key risk factors” the report identifies for lack of home internet access are:
· Living in poverty: 5 times less likely to have internet access,
· Household member with a disability: 3 times less likely to have internet access,
· Primary language other than English: 2 times less likely to have access,
· Older adults (65 years old or more): 1.8 times less likely to have access,
· Non-white residents: 1.6 times less likely to have internet access.
“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.”
“This Internet for All Resolution will speed up chipping away at digital divides that persist in Seattle caused by affordability of home internet, devices, and tech support. Digital inclusion hasn’t yet been fully woven into Seattle’s social support systems and community institutions. Our organization supports on-the-ground practitioners, like the staff of Seattle’s Digital Equity Program. I’m proud that my community has been a leader in the digital equity field for decades. Unlike most cities, Seattle has a digital equity plan. This Resolution opens up that discussion so that the city can reimagine what digital inclusion looks like right now during the pandemic in various departments and act. Now is the time.” said Sabrina Roach, Program Director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance
“I’m happy to see the City adopt the Internet for All resolution because this is a social justice issue,” said Cat Howell, Educational Director for Literacy Source, an organization providing free learner-centered basic education to low-income adults in the Seattle area. “We see every day the impact of no or limited internet access on the Literacy Source students’ access to education, services, civic participation, employment and many other important parts of our current lives in COVID-19 times.”
This challenging budgetary environment demands an update to the assumptions about financial risk, competitive challenges, economic development benefits, and partnership opportunities to achieve universal broadband. The Internet for All Resolution seeks a comprehensive update, 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 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.