Cities across the country are trying to get more of their citizens access to the Internet during the COVID-19 crisis, with essential services such as medicine and education moving online as residents stay home.
Before COVID-19 hit in full and shelter-in-place orders were issued, Springfield, Ill., was — like most cities — taking a holistic approach to digital inclusion, trying to boost the numbers of students in area schools who had access to the Internet at home.
And like most cities, obstacles such as infrastructure and available resources were challenges. Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the schools were closed, students were home, and teachers were moving to online instruction. Connecting those students went from a long-term project to a necessity, and it needed to be done in days — not in weeks, months or years.
Tom Chi, who is the central Illinois city’s telecommunications manager and acting chief innovation officer, said there was “no time to build out infrastructure, and no time to wait for resources.” The city wanted to buy Wi-Fi hot spots to give to students during the crisis, he said, but even that was a challenge because nationwide demand had the tech on month-long backorders.
So Springfield reached out to Verizon, and through the company’s contacts, the city was able to overcome supply chain issues caused by the crisis to acquire 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to give to public school students. To do this, Verizon connected Springfield with Connected Solutions Group, in Mechanicsville, Va.
And Springfield is not the only city that has been forced to take this immediate, whatever-it-takes approach to digital equity during the crisis. In fact, cities all over the country are working to find new and agile ways to bridge the digital divide, even if those ways are often temporary.
As the vice president of business and development for the gov tech company UrbanLeap, Rich Lechner has helped convene a discussion and resources network of more than 200 cities from 37 states during the crisis. In a recent Zoom conversation, Lechner described rapidly bridging the digital divide the way Springfield did as a frequent topic of discussion.
He said for many cities, the work has long involved creating resources at physical locations such as libraries or community centers, and it now has to change to helping residents get online access without having to go out in public.
Angelina Panettieri is the legislative manager for information technology and communications with the National League of Cities, a professional network for civic leadership. Panettieri is also involved with efforts to connect cities with each other so they can share lessons learned during the crisis, and she, too, pointed to digital inclusion as one of the more pressing matters currently facing local leadership.
It’s a challenge that faces both the public and private sector as well as city hall itself — how can organizations get devices into people’s hands so they can conduct all their business online?
“What might have been a three- or five-year timeline has now been pushed into three weeks,” Panettieri said of the rapid acceleration of need.
To this end, there are several communities across the country that have converted unused school buses into Wi-Fi hot spots, so users in need can park beside them and get online from portable devices in their cars. While this works in the short term, the cost and logistical hassle of the connections hardly make it an endgame solution.
“That’s happening because we have fallen down on the job as a country,” she said, “because we have failed at providing adequate broadband infrastructure at a price where people can afford it. That’s happening because we messed up.”
While Panettieri said she’s been heartened to see bi-partisan support for action taken by the FCC around digital equity during these times to make programs flexible and to secure volunteering commitments from Internet service providers, she said legislation aimed at fixing underlying digital equity issues — namely poor broadband infrastructure and prohibitive service pricing — is best remedied by legislative action. Bills such as the Digital Equity Act and the LIFT America Act are currently in existence and would be immensely helpful, provided they come to fruition.
“We just have to get it together and actually pass those bills,” Panettieri said. “A bunch of them have been sitting around for a while.”
Panettieri is also one of a chorus of voices in the local government and adjacent spaces voicing optimism that the crisis has illustrated the pressing and tangible needs for nationwide connectivity, doing so as it did with the school kids in Springfield and in other parts of the country with capabilities such as telehealth.
In the meantime, cities are doing what they can, aided by public-private partnerships in their communities. In Kansas City, Mo., for example, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has teamed with both the city and the business community on a program called the Employer Laptop Challenge.
An outgrowth of digital equity work the bank has been involved with for some time, the challenge’s verbiage notes that “it would take at least 5,000 computers to meet the needs of the most at-risk families in metro Kansas City, and more to help nonprofits struggling to operate virtually.”
The basic idea behind the Employer Laptop Challenge is to organize a community effort for businesses to donate discarded computers to be refurbished and given out to those in need, said Jeremy Hegle, senior community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
The bank itself discards hundreds of computers each year, most of which could be refurbished and repurposed. Computers donated as part of the challenge will go to Connecting for Good, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that works to provide low-income communities in the city with Internet access, devices and digital literacy training — the big three of digital inclusion.
“We see this as a low-cost, immediate way to support the schools in communities,” Hegle said.
In addition to helping the kids continue their learning, there is also a public health benefit to keeping households online. If they have Internet at home, they won’t have to leave the house as much to accomplish basic tasks, and therefore won’t be at risk of spreading or catching the virus.
It’s a rare obstacle that brings the public, private and nonprofit sectors together to take action in a matter of days, but with everything at stake, that’s exactly what’s happening with digital inclusion efforts in many cities nationwide.