Overcoming the Digital Divide in a Time of Crisis:
Prioritizing Digital Inclusion During Philadelphia’s COVID-19 Stay at Home Order
While Philadelphians are ordered to stay home to protect the health of our community, many are left disconnected and cut off from essential information, resources, work and school, and even each other – all due to the persistent digital divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that the technology we need to stay connected is a right, not a privilege.
Workers who have lost their jobs can’t search for employment without the internet. Philadelphia students are being told to put their health and safety at risk by sitting in parking lots to access wifi for remote learning – leave them vulnerable and exposed to bad weather.
Furthermore, communities that previously struggled to get online are at an increased risk of being left behind when city operations return to normal. Without targeted efforts to connect this community to technology and the internet, the underlying factors contributing to displacement, poverty, disparities in health, and unemployment will intensify, potentially leaving these communities behind for the foreseeable future.
Philadelphia must take swift action to get vulnerable communities online. This means the City must treat technology and broadband access as a human right and take the necessary steps to ensure that all Philadelphians are able to get online safely and have the necessary skills to find the resources they need in this moment of crisis.
The following recommendations aim to elevate strategies for the city to solve ongoing digital inclusion challenges for the most vulnerable communities.
The City of Philadelphia should:
1 – Ensure all vital and official communications are accessible to everyone, on and offline.
It is essential to provide instructions for obtaining important information on social media and city websites on non-digital platforms. The Philadelphia Resident’s Survey indicated a large portion of residents struggle to access city information online. The city’s communications during this crisis must meet people where they are, including having a separate communication plan for disabled persons.
- Create digital fliers with essential information that mutual aid providers can print and include with mutual aid packages. This information packet should also be disseminated to neighborhood convenience, grocery, and drug stores and posted on light poles and other places with public signage access.
- Strategically employ the severe weather alert system for important and infrequent COVID-19 information, such as a once a week reminder to stay home and a message to sign up for text alerts. As of April 9, less than 5% of Philadelphia residents had signed up to receive the text alerts, proving that these alerts are not reaching the vast majority of the population.
- Continue to diversify and explore methods of increasing engagement with city resources for COVID-19 information. No amount of resources or information will be useful if the vast majority of people in our city aren’t able to access them.
- This includes diversifying the language options included in the daily press briefing and text alerts, as well as written communication and website text
2 – Create an emergency plan to get broadband and technology access to the communities most impacted by the digital divide.
- Update 311 with resources for affordable internet options and computers.
- Facilitate a computer and cellphone donation drive calling for the education, business, and nonprofit sectors to donate technology to residents in need.
- Engage the SmartCityPHL Pitch + Pilot Program to vastly expand internet service provider options and immediately target disconnected communities with free internet service.
- Work with internet service providers to ensure they:
- Provide free computers and technology, free from invasive surveillance features, for everyone who needs them
- Make substantive investments in disseminating Internet Essentials information and offers.
- Expand the capacity of all Internet Essentials call centers
- Extend Internet Essentials payment-free period, until all COVID-19 related restrictions are lifted.
- Lift ban for Internet Essentials eligibility on customers with outstanding bill and overdue balance of less than one year
- Open residential xfinity wifi hotspots.
3 – Ensure that expanded access to technology does not lead to expanded invasive surveillance of already vulnerable individuals.
- As schools shift to online learning, the city must ensure that students are not being unfairly surveilled through their digital classrooms, remote testing, and pre-installed spyware to monitor their activities on computers they receive.
- The city must protect its residents against the increased surveillance and location tracking that the federal government has proposed under the guise of public health
- Do not use electronic monitors to track new COVID-19 infections or lack of social distance compliance.
4 – Create a comprehensive plan to ensure digital access to every resident within 5 years.
- Create a plan to get tech and broadband to everyone in the city, including how to identify communities or people with tech needs
- Provide tech literacy courses to residents
- Diversify ISP options for the residents of Philadelphia.
- Remove roadblocks to expansion for smaller ISPs who are more responsive to the immediate needs of their customers.
- Empower communities to build their own community broadband networks by working with the community development corporations ensuring cooperatively owned broadband creates local neighborhood jobs which meet the areas’ need for the internet.