SALT LAKE CITY — The city of Salt Lake today took a major step toward leveling the playing field for all residents with a commitment to the development of a comprehensive digital inclusion policy.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski and key city staff announced the ongoing initiative during an event at the Salt Lake City Google Fiber office Tuesday morning.
During her comments, the mayor highlighted the importance of connectivity for all residents, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, and called on partners and stakeholders to collaborate as the policymaking process advances.
“We understand that a policy of this nature will require collaboration amongst many stakeholders in our community, including the school district, library and of course the people that are in this room today,” she said.
Though the policy is still several months from a formal council vote, it is expected to happen after a broad community outreach effort and specific funding and resource needs are assessed.
“All of this work will ensure that our policy establishes the city’s vision, purpose and goals for digital inclusion in Salt Lake City and is something which can be used both externally and internally to improve our own city operations,” she said. “I am here today to let you know that Salt Lake City is committed to investing in resources that increase digital equity.
“Technology is rapidly developing worldwide and it is important that we set our community up for success in this environment,” she continued.
Nole Walkingshaw, the deputy director of Administrative Services, is spearheading the larger push and said the policy will ultimately serve as a guide for Internet service providers and other partners in the space.
While some companies, like Comcast, have long had their own initiatives to address underserved communities across the country, Walkingshaw said the city’s policy efforts will offer a focused vision as to where the city needs the most investment and how successes will be measured.
As far as the council is concerned, a formal briefing has not happened yet, but Walkingshaw is confident the issue of digital equity is one with support across the board. As efforts progress, he said the collaboration will focus on developing metrics, specific areas of need and funding asks.
“You need a policy like this to guide community investment,” he said. “Policy is very important.”
When it comes to identifying areas of the most need or how to measure the results of city and stakeholder action, Walkingshaw and the mayor said these are areas where they will need public input and an evolving discussion to occur.
This conversation about digital equity though, is nothing new. In fact, it’s a conversation that has shifted since popping up during the Clinton administration in 1996, said Dr. Joy Pierce, one of the event’s guest speakers and inclusion scholar with the University of Utah. When the issue first came onto the scene, it was known as the “digital divide” before changing to “digital inclusion” under the Bush administration and changing yet again to “broadband” under the Obama administration.
“All the while, the divide did not change," Pierce said. "Even as people gained more computers, the 20-40 percent gap between those who had and those who didn’t remained the same."
On the spectrum of connectivity, access to technology and digital education, Pierce said racial and ethnic minorities with limited education and financial resources continue to be left out.
While people can be given refurbished computers and an Internet connection, Pierce argues that often isn’t enough to acclimate them to the digital world. Outreach efforts must go further and include education as a core component.
In her own research, Pierce has identified four main requirements for bridging digital gaps. They are: access to current hardware and software; freedom of discovery without expectation; motivation; and the ability to make creative contributions.
Among those with a stake in the game, Comcast representatives at the event said the city’s efforts dovetail well with their own push to extend low-cost Internet access to underserved communities across the country.
Dee Knight, public relations and community investment manager for Comcast, said the Internet Essentials program has run in a similar vein in Salt Lake City since 2011 and has provided access to some 64,000 Utah residents. She said there is more room to grow that figure by as much as 27,300 within the veteran community.
As she explained, connectivity goes beyond providing access to education materials, but also extends to finding jobs and growing economic opportunities.
“I think this policy will allow us to one, be a thought partner … and also help solve problems for Utah, and that’s why we are coming to the table,” Knight said.
Editor's Note: This article was corrected to reflect that Comcast's Internet Essentials program launched in Salt Lake City in 2011.