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Pittsburgh Area Leaders Set Digital Equity Timeline

Allegheny County and city of Pittsburgh officials have announced plans for a joint program that will work toward closing the region's digital divide by 2027, though full details aren't expected until late spring.

(TNS) — Allegheny County and city of Pittsburgh officials announced plans Tuesday afternoon for a joint program that will work toward closing the region's digital divide by 2027, though full details aren't expected until late spring.

The digital divide refers to the split between people who have access to computers and the internet and those who don't. Once completed, the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition's plan will outline ways the city, county and other community partners can close it.

The plan will include ways to provide broadband internet access to all residents at an affordable price, educate residents on digital literacy and provide technical support for the equipment, according a news release from the city.

The coalition expects to publish the full plan during the second quarter of 2023, the release said.

"We have a working group that will work together over the next six months to determine what it's really going to take to close the digital divide within five years," Heidi Norman, the city's Director of Innovation and Performance said.

Ms. Norman worked with community partners over the last nine months learning about the digital divide in the area and what could be done to combat it, she said.

"Far too long we have known the truth about the digital divide: that our seniors and our Black and brown children have been left behind," Mayor Ed Gainey said on Tuesday.

Across the city and county, about 30% of those over the age of 65 and 30% of people living in households that make less than $20,000 annually do not have access to broadband, Mr. Gainey said.

"We have to continue to make sure that we shrink this gap," he added. "Our transformation to an eds and meds economy, one that drives technological advances in robotics and medical engineering, will not leave anyone behind. We will work together ... with one mission: to connect our entire city and close the digital divide."

Experts who attended a broadband symposium at the University of Pittsburgh in the spring noted that the pandemic further exacerbated this divide, particularly among Black and brown and low-income communities, when nearly everything was moved online.

"The increasing importance of online activities for residents during the pandemic now requires proactive leadership to close the digital divide across our region," the city said in its release.

Every few weeks members of the coalition will meet and "build a detailed playbook" for closing the divide, which will include a history of the digital gap in the area, mapping work that has already been done, outlining what still needs to be done and preparing for grant applications, the release said.

What is unclear is the cost of the expansion. Congress' Build Back Better Act has allocated $1 billion nationwide to help fund broadband affordability and accessibility. Of that amount, about $475 million is set aside for grants for groups to distribute laptops and computers.

Other partners included in the coalition are groups like the city and the county's housing authorities, Pittsburgh Regional Transit, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh and the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, among others.

"We are grateful to the many organizations which have answered this call and will work with us to ensure that we are able to increase broadband access, particularly in senior, Black and brown communities," County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

© 2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.