Opinion

Opinion: Congress has a huge opportunity to help fix Philly’s stubborn digital divide

What would Philadelphia look like if more people had the info they need to make their lives better?

Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia

Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
kristinevillaneuva

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the internet sucks in Philly. Connectivity isn’t always reliable and high speed connections aren’t always affordable. The pandemic further highlighted what many call the digital divide, the gap between who benefits from digital information and who doesn’t.

Congress is set to vote on a $1 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill that would allocate billions to Pennsylvania. At least $100 million would go to the state to help provide broadband coverage for 390,000 Pa. residents, and make internet connectivity more affordable for families with lower incomes.

It’s hard to say how much money the city will receive. But Philly needs network upgrades to offset the digital divide. In the city and across the nation, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than white adults to say they have a computer or high-speed internet at home, per a recent Pew study.

If information is power — and in modern society, that maxim is more true than ever — many Philadelphians are less empowered to make decisions that shape their everyday lives.

The city is home to Comcast, the nation’s largest internet service provider, yet Philadelphia has one of worst urban connectivity rates in the country. Philly’s broadband subscription rate is below the national average: 77% compared to 83%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And only 85% of Philadelphians own a computer, compared to the country’s 90% average.

So even with a strong fiber optic infrastructure, the digital divide persists. That needs to change.

Philadelphians were able to see a fraction of what’s possible through the city’s PHL ConnectED partnership with Comcast Internet Essentials, which was implemented to help K-12 students connect for remote learning during COVID. Of the up to 35,000 households the program pledged to reach, approximately 18,720 had been connected after a year (the number does not reflect families that may have exited the program.) That could mean more than 16,000 households are still in need of broadband access. There’s a city survey underway to try to figure out how many actually do.

As the editor for Resolve Philly’s Equally Informed initiative, I have seen firsthand that equitable access to resources and information can positively impact communities. During the general election, our team answered 500 text messages related to voting through our text line — and literally got people out to vote.

It doesn’t end there. Bridging Philly’s digital divide is something our team does every day, whether through our free, bilingual Equal Info Q&A text line or our community-driven print newsletter. We’ve helped people locate community fridges, given resources to people affected by gun violence and even helped someone figure out what happened to their car when it got towed. Giving Philadelphians easy-to-access information is our full-time gig.

What would Philly look like if more people had the information they need to make their lives better?

Mayor Jim Kenney was one of several mayors who in July signed a letter addressed to House leaders, asking for greater federal investments in reliable internet access. The mayors’ requests for the infrastructure bill include ensuring that local and tribal governments are able to apply directly to the federal government for funding, instead of dollars being only allocated to states. Other requests include increasing speed, prioritizing affordability, and providing funds for last mile infrastructure adoption, especially for urban communities historically left behind. This includes equitable access, suitable devices, sustainable connectivity and digital navigators who help people with the process of getting internet access.

This problem isn’t new. Philadelphia and other cities across the country have the chance to provide equitable access to information. Access to life-saving, life-affirming information shouldn’t be a privilege. Until then, our team at Equally Informed will keep hustling.

To join Equally Informed’s free Q&A text line, text EQUALINFO to 73224

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