Community

Equitable Internet Access Remains a Hot-Button Issue

In the race to get as many District residents as possible fully vaccinated, the Health Alliance Network recently collaborated with D.C. Council member Vincent Gray’s office to manually schedule appointments for seniors living in Ward 7.

It was upon executing this endeavor that organizers saw the need not only for computer literacy, but for access to affordable, high-speed internet. They said without it, the elders living in a retirement community wouldn’t have been able to access the online vaccination portal on their own.

“We knew that all the seniors didn’t have computers and internet access, but not to what extent. The resident council president didn’t find out until she knocked on each door and seniors told her they wouldn’t be able to sign up,” Ambrose Lane Jr., founder and chair of the Health Alliance Network, told The Informer.

D.C. Council Attempts to Respond

In response to what’s been described as the technological divide, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) recently introduced legislation to expand access to high-speed, reliable and affordable internet service to District residents, regardless of where they live.

Nine council members have signed on as co-introducers, including Gray, and Council members Robert White (D- At large), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1).

If passed, the bill, touted as “The Internet Equity Amendment Act,” would create a Digital Equity Division within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO). Within the first year of the division’s existence, OCTO would have to set and identify the minimum internet speed that would allow D.C. residents to work and take classes from home.

OCTO would also be obligated to identify households lacking internet access and devise a plan to upgrade the current infrastructure so that all residents receive a high-quality connection, whether it be through partnerships with private internet service providers or the creation of a municipal provider.

As outlined in the bill, OCTO would host engagement sessions, at least one of which takes place east of the Anacostia River, throughout the course of this project.

Ward 7 State Board of Education (SBOE) Representative Eboni-Rose Thompson lauded the effort, telling The Informer that inequitable internet access has plagued her neighborhood and other parts of Wards 7 and 8 for several years, well beyond the realm of education.

“If we want to best position people coming out of this pandemic, our city needs to invest in a citywide Wi-Fi infrastructure. It would absolutely serve communities like mine,” Thompson said. “Literally everything you need is online. It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of the school district. We need high-quality internet for all.”

Students and Teachers Struggle

In February, the D.C. Policy Center found that 9,000 young people obtained internet access through the Internet-for-All initiative, a $3.3 million investment made by the Office of the State Superintendent for Education for up to 25,000 for SNAP and TANF-eligible families in the public and public charter school systems.

A month later, an SBOE all-teachers survey found that three out of four teachers designated their students’ slow internet connectivity as an impediment to virtual learning. Those conditions, in part, contributed to difficulties that one-third of the teachers experienced in attempting to navigate the curriculum.

As Andrew Green, a music teacher at Phelps ACE High School recounted, jumping over the hurdle of poor internet connectivity often drained the spirit of learning out of students eager to succeed under unprecedented circumstances.

“Most of the time [when the connection was spotty], they would just ask me to say [something] again,” Green said. “Those were the ones who said something. I don’t know how many more might have been turned off from the experience and frustrated.”

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