The Pandemic Released a Stream of Money for Broadband. Will That Advance Digital Equity?


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Chheng Tang, a parent of three teenage students and one preteen, has found the free internet she gets through her school both relieving and, in a way, unsettling.

Tang now works part time as a tutor at DuPont Elementary, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before that, she worked in special education. For a number of years, she’s relied on discount options for broadband so that her own family can connect to the internet. These days, Tang’s county runs a program that provides free internet, given out through the school to low-income families. The broadband speed is supposed to be up to 300 gigabytes — considered moderate usage for an American household — but it can run slow because everyone is using it, Tang says.

The county has poured resources into making sure everyone in the community set in the Tennessee foothills has enough technology to get online. For the last few years, the local government — with schools, the telecommunications company EPB of Chattanooga, and nonprofits — has run “HCS EdConnect,” a program through which schools give Chromebooks, tablets and free training on the skills needed to use smart technology and the modern internet system. As part of that, school families can qualify for free internet access. The region also runs “Tech Goes Home,” a similar program for community members who don’t have school-aged children.

Those resources seem to work. At least, that’s partly why digital equity activists hold the area up as a model for pursuing equal access to the digital world.

They really shine, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance, who picked out Chattanooga when asked for somewhere that’s made strides in securing digital equity. Siefer’s nonprofit lists Chattanooga as a “trailblazer,” one of the cities where the local government dedicates staff and money to advancing — and collects data about — digital equity. (Only eight other cities are considered comparable, according to the nonprofit.)

The area is something of an outlier. Nearby counties like Rhea or Bledsoe haven’t been as successful, according to tools like Microsoft’s digital equity dashboard, which tracks broadband speed and use.

But even within Hamilton County, some parents feel lucky to have access.

Tang appreciates the internet, which has helped her kids with school and saved her from stressing about her broadband connection. But, she says, she almost never learned about the program in the first place.

Tang heard about it from another family. “They told me, ‘Oh, if you qualify for the low-income [benefits], then you can get it,’” Tang says, referring to social services like the federal free and reduced-price school meal program. But she still had to go to the administration of her school and ask for forms.

While there are pamphlets and other information sources out there, they are not necessarily accessible to people for whom English is not their first language, Tang says. “It’s too much of a process,” she concludes, adding, “They should be offering, and they should be telling me about it.”

A Bright Spotlight

Since the pandemic, there’s been a spotlight on developing broadband capabilities. The forced move to digital learning and work made the consequences of inadequate internet access glaring.

“We saw the kids doing homework in a parking lot, and it got people revved up,” says Siefer.

And there have been a number of historic investments into developing broadband capabilities recently, from the $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program — considered one of the biggest long-term investments into expanding broadband access — to the Digital Equity Act, which made it into the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Because these issues are so localized, it can be hard to tell what’s working.

It’s difficult to say how many people in a given locality can access the internet and know how to use it, says Siefer. Broad sources of data, like Microsoft’s dashboard — or the one recently released by the Consortium for School Networking, a K-12 technology member group — rely on government data, which is at least two years out of date, she says.

But these tools can provide a starting point for counties to investigate. In part, this data can give community leaders who are struggling a place to find models they can learn from. (CoSN says that it’s working to create customized dashboards for a few school districts that include local sets of data, which would not be publicly available, only accessible to the districts themselves, to avoid potential data privacy issues.)

Even aided by federal money, getting the internet into neighborhoods is truly a local effort, and one that pays off most by improving people’s daily lives, according to digital equity activists.

So far, the number of local communities coming together to address this issue has continued to grow, Siefer says. Officials seem to recognize that internet access lifts education, but also has spillover benefits like increased economic activity. There are now at least seven state efforts to organize around digital equity, she adds. They involve developing community plans and directing funds.

With money from the federal government, local communities have been able to develop their capacity more deeply. And later this year, there may be more coming.

‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’

The proposed funding from the Digital Equity Act, a multibillion-dollar federal investment to close the digital divide, will start to flow to communities in 2024. States, territories and tribal governments were already sent a round of money to plan out how they can use funds to close digital gaps. But soon, the federal government will make “capacity building” grants available for delivering on those plans.

“And the knowledge of more money coming means communities get their act together,” Siefer says. That’s one of the reasons communities have stepped up their attempts to build coalitions, she adds.

But the really big question is whether states will figure out how to sustain their efforts.

Many of these investments have been immensely helpful in the eyes of the NDIA. But the gains from single-use funding sources have begun to erode, Siefer says.

The temporary funds communities had were largely expended on skills training and purchasing devices. While that may have temporarily helped, the gains are in danger of slipping away. Chromebooks purchased during lockdown phases of the pandemic are already nearing the end of their life, for example, meaning that without sustainable means of funding new purchases, some communities are now back where they started.

Ultimately, activists hope that areas like Chattanooga will prove to be successful “experiments,” which can be emulated by other localities. The amount of money has ignited communities to try out new ways of developing something the country hasn’t ever provided before. Where successful, according to activists, it goes a way toward reducing the structural unfairness of modern life. If efforts pay off, everyone in these areas will have access to fast internet.

“Nobody wants to see federal money as a grand experiment, but we are going to see some places that have really figured it out. They’re going to turn out to be models for the rest of us. And that’s pretty exciting,” Siefer says.

What about those who have benefited from these experiments so far? Tang, the mother from Hamilton County, has noticed a unique issue that’s popped up because of her family’s improved access to the internet.

“My [own] special needs kid, he used to be up all night — playing YouTube or watching videos — instead of sleeping. And then when he comes to school, he’ll be sleeping,” Tang says. She’s had to shut off the internet around 10 p.m., and she thinks it’s something other parents would benefit from hearing about. “They’re addicted to the phone.”

With new technology comes a new obligation for figuring out how to use it responsibly. Perhaps, Tang says, Chattanooga should offer a class that instructs parents on how to keep their kids’ relationship with the internet healthy.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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