The gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet and those who do not constitutes a public health crisis. What if a community commission focused on digital equity and strategy was formed to tackle these problems?

A global pandemic forced the shift to an online society. This shift was uncomfortable, but manageable for some, but for many it was impossible, exposing yet another inequity. The digital divide is the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet and those who do not. Although this might be a public health crisis moment of awakening for some of us, this inequity has been studied for decades and by experts like Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who cites three clear steps Congress can take to increase broadband access to Americans.

Yet, some children stopped learning when Covid-19 froze every household firmly in their economic class. The haves and the have nots grew even more apparent as we scrambled to “light up” parking lots and buses and distribute equipment so kids could keep learning. Local leaders have done much in the way of distributing resources to help. Columbus City Council and Franklin County have used millions of dollars in CARES Act funding to distribute loaned and refurbished equipment to families with school-aged children. The Columbus Foundation established a $1 million fund to further the work started to identify and respond to gaps and challenges in broadband access. There is hope.

This piece of thought leadership is part of 11 Moonshot Ideas to Move the Columbus Region Forward: A Future 50 project.

THE IDEAS

The need for a civic renaissance • The private sector should fight inequity • Closing the digital divide • Driving equity by funding women-owned businesses • Designing a more equitable region • Using data to guide public policy • Customer-centricity in social services • A radical recalibration of education • ISO: Ambassadors for science • Finding true work-life balance post-Covid • Reimagining community-police relations • Why we did this project

A recent study by AECOM reported that even in the lowest income areas of Columbus, there is at least one high-speed internet provider and adequate broadband infrastructure for service. Instead, the study found that gaps in access were largely due to a variety of barriers across different demographics, including economic challenges, technology literacy and lack of computers or other devices. As we take a moment of pause to reflect on why we were so woefully unprepared for this, it begs the question, whose job is it anyway?

Digital exclusion comes at a cost we cannot continue to carry if we want to be a smart, future-thinking community. Every industry relies on the internet. Every small business, household, urban and rural community will require affordable and effective internet for our economic future, schooling and health, making solving this problem unavoidable. As technology continues to evolve, closing the divide will only grow more challenging.

The answer? It’s no one’s job. There are and have been civic leaders interested in the digital divide, but many projects stall without clear vision, funding or decision-making authority. Until now, this issue has felt like the role of municipal and school district officials, or perhaps the libraries could tackle this. While the leadership of our world-class library system and community foundation have shifted our local perspectives, solving the digital divide is now too critical to be a pet pilot.

What if a community commission focused on digital equity and strategy was formed to tackle these problems? The state of Ohio has done that with Innovate Ohio, chaired by Future 50 inaugural member Falon Donohue, who was involved in discussions about digital equity in Franklinton and on the South Side in recent years.

The formation of a community commission and full-time staff to support solving the digital divide locally doesn’t sound so far-fetched when the opportunity to achieve the American Dream is reliant on the internet.

Columbus Rising Project

The Columbus Rising Project, an organization preparing to locate community-based “help desks,” was formed by two of the co-founders of Black Tech Columbus, longtime advocates for broadband expansion and sworn enemies of the digital divide, Kaleem Musa and Doug McCollough.

Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.

The Columbus Rising Project will provide members with the opportunity to acquire or borrow devices and gain information and support in obtaining permanent broadband internet access and securing personal information using freely available accounts and services.

Musa and McCollough are serious about digital access, equity and inclusion in Columbus neighborhoods at risk for experiencing the growing digital divide, and continuously improving resource recommendations to members, increasing their knowledge, confidence, proficiency, access, and wellness in the use of technology.

“These communities deserve the dignity of these services and to be served with cultural humility,” Musa says. “[This project is] really a focused complement to what happens in libraries.” Locations will be established as walk-up and walk-in facilities where members of a community can seek digital wellness.

PACT Connected Communities

One way to solve the digital divide is by focusing on one neighborhood at a time. In early 2020, PACT initiated its Connected Communities strategy to leverage its unique position as place-based “community quarterback” to address the digital divide.

Leading with community engagement, PACT has engaged hundreds of residents and partnered with local and national leaders to explore solving the digital divide one neighborhood at a time. Its focus is on giving residents the dignity of access to internet that is affordable and effective for all uses including school, work, telehealth and fun! PACT is committed to ensuring residents have devices to participate that they own and the confidence to use them.

Thanks to the support of the Columbus Foundation, a feasibility study for increasing broadband adoption in the PACT 800-acre geography is underway. This could serve as a case study for other neighborhoods to increase household fixed internet. Finally, PACT is working with partners at Moody Nolan and the Columbus Rising Project to develop a culturally responsive digital literacy resource for residents to increase their proficiency and comfort in using the internet for life.

Autumn Glover is president of Partners Achieving Community Transformation (PACT), a nonprofit working to revitalize the Near East Side neighborhood surrounding Ohio State University East Hospital. The organization was founded in 2010 by Ohio State, the city of Columbus, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority and Near East Side stakeholders.

With contributions from Brad Griffith, Josh Harrison, Matt Miller and Jordan Davis