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The Other Side of the Divide: Urban Broadband Access

As broadband expansion efforts increase nationwide, digital equity advocates are working to ensure that urban communities are included. New federal funding opportunities are adding fuel to these efforts.

Worm’s eye view of skyscrapers with connected dots.
Urban communities face unique challenges in effectively gaining broadband access, which primarily involve affordability and literacy.

With the continuing rise of digital inclusion efforts nationwide, advocates are working hard to fill the gaps in rural communities through partnerships and other measures. And as government agencies plan for federal broadband distribution opportunities, there are steps to take to ensure digital inclusion efforts reach urban communities, those working in the space contend.

“There are dollars out there to increase broadband connectivity,” explained Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL). “It is not simply a rural issue. It’s an urban issue — although the issue may be different.”

As he explained, the main factors impeding adoption are both affordability and digital literacy.

On the affordability side, Morial mentioned that device ownership, and specifically having the ability to own both a cellphone and a computer, are crucial to being connected in this digital age.


The NUL recently released the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion, which underlined the value of partnerships and consortia as a strategy for digital inclusion. As Morial explained, partnerships with community-based organizations, like schools and libraries, are critical in reaching people where they are for what he refers to as “digital empowerment.”

Partnerships are a good example of how to ensure that funding gets to the members of urban communities that need it, in addition to ensuring that the access comes with digital skills training to maximize impact. Some examples include the Y-Zone in Yonkers, N.Y.; Tucson Connected in Tucson, Ariz.; and The Town Link program in Oakland, Calif.

The Town Link program, for example, is a partnership between the city of Oakland and The Greenlining Institute, both of which are collaborating with participating organizations in their community.

According to Vinhcent Le, senior legal counsel of tech equity with The Greenlining Institute, there are subsidy programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program to help people afford Internet access, though in many cases individuals are not aware that these programs exist or they do not know how to take advantage of them. This is where Le said that outreach is so important to connect with populations that are the hardest to reach, like those that do not speak English as their first language.

By partnering with trusted community-based organizations, people can get the information that they need through an organization that has a history of serving a particular community or population.

In addition, Le underlined that partnering with a larger organization — like The Greenlining Institute — could offer subcontracts and subgrants that could reduce the barriers for smaller organizations.

Jacque Larrainzar, the city of Oakland’s program analyst for the Department of Race and Equity, said that one of the best ways to find these organizations is to go out into the community and speak directly to the people that a project or initiative aims to help serve. As she stated, the people in a community are the experts on the way that these issues impact them.

She also acknowledged that in many cases, city government is not designed to work directly with these organizations, and that forming such relationships in Oakland required internal change within the city — especially where policies and procedures were concerned.

“If we are not doing a good job, we need to figure out how to make things better,” Larrainzar said. “We have the power. I think it’s time for us to really take on how government functions.”

She underlined the value of the ecosystem of organizations that work together in the community to serve Oakland residents, stating her hopes that this could be a model for other cities.


For many companies that provide these services, there is little incentive to build in communities made up of low-income individuals. Companies looking to maximize profits are more likely to build projects in communities made up of high-income individuals. This is referred to as digital redlining.

Historically, redlining took place due to racist policies, whereas digital redlining is based on profit, Le explained.

But as Larrainzar detailed, one can still see the impacts of the redlining that once took place in the city by overlaying a map that depicts barriers to broadband services. Similarities can also be seen when comparing a map that depicts violence, pollution and other inequities. She underlined a close relationship between achieving digital equity and racial equity, as the two go hand in hand.

While these effects of systemic barriers do linger, Le underlined the value of open access networks in helping to combat the issue.

He stated that open access networks allow for third-party vendors to take advantage of existing infrastructure and expand service. In doing so, competition in the marketplace is increased and prices for customers are lowered.

Morial recommended that government agencies and other organizations looking to get started in digital empowerment work start by advocating for Internet service providers to bring high quality Internet to urban communities. Second, he recommended advocating for the type of subsidy programs that support these communities by providing access to discounted services or programs that enable access to devices.

“As a nation, we have to realize how much — particularly accelerated by the pandemic — digital connectivity and empowerment is a necessity of life,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.