At a sparsely attended public meeting last Tuesday, Bloomington’s IT director, Rick Dietz and consultants from Maryland-based CTC Technology and Energy made themselves available for feedback on the city’s draft digital equity strategic plan.
The introduction to the plan describes “digital equity” as a situation where “all individuals can fully participate in work, school, society, and economic opportunity by having sufficient access and ability to use broadband and computing devices.”
The question of digital equity has become more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as full participation in work and school have presupposed adequate hardware and connectivity to the internet.
The draft plan incorporates pandemic perspectives from representatives of Monroe County Community School Corporation and Monroe County Public Library.
According to the draft plan, “The emergency response programs that MCCSC took on, such as the hotspot program, created significant administrative burdens and affected MCCSC staff’s ability to do their core jobs.” The draft plan continues, “MCCSC’s tech support staff became responsible for direct communication with approximately 11,000 students and 17,000 parents.”
According to the draft plan, the public library “reported a surge in e-library usage and a vast unmet need for laptops and hotspot devices, requiring more funding.”
The draft includes several recommendations, among them the suggestion that a new city staff position be hired to focus on digital equity issues.
Key recommendations in the draft include:
- Create a coalition of stakeholders to guide strategy and establish a leadership position within the City to implement digital equity programs, enhance coordination and drive action.
- Expand a new city grants fund to launch and expand programs such as device provision and loaner programs, and potentially to launch technical support and training programs that serve target populations.
- Work to expand utilization of Internet Essentials and other subsidized broadband programs, including through sponsored subscriptions, education and outreach efforts, and potential third-party support to assist indebted consumers.
- Engage with local foundations and explore means of financial and technical support and partnerships to scale programmatic responses to meet the full need.
- Facilitate broadband competition to potentially improve service and lower prices; consider the feasibility of expanding Wi-Fi in public housing and in City public spaces.
Tuesday’s meeting on the draft came a couple of days before the deadline for applications were due for $35,000 worth of grants to nonprofits and governmental units.
On Tuesday, Dietz said no final grant applications had been submitted at that point—there were at least four or five that are in the works, he said. Those applications that he knew about ran the gamut from proposals for hardware to supplement the library’s lending program, to training and assistance in connecting residents, to affordable broadband, Dietz said.
The $35,000 in grant money was authorized by the city council as a part of the first phase of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s Recover Forward plan, which used reversion money from the 2019 budget year to fund a total of about $2 million in programs starting this fall.
The 2021 city budget includes $50,000 in digital equity grants. Now without a source of funding are $300,000 worth of digital equity projects that were a part of the administration’s proposal of programs to be funded with an increase to the local income tax (LIT).
In mid-September, Bloomington’s city council voted down the LIT increase.
On hand on Tuesday to answer questions were consultants from CTC Technology and Energy—Joanne Hovis, the company’s president, and David Talbot, who is principal analyst and researcher.
One of the recommendations in the draft plan addresses the idea of internet access as a utility, which could be protected from shutoffs in the same way as water and electricity. From the report: “Protections need to be in place so that residents don’t lose internet service if they’re unable to pay—similar to protections for other utilities. Rick Dietz, director of the city’s Information and Technology Services Department, noted that this issue could potentially be addressed by the state legislature.”
The report also suggests that Bloomington could consider a debt forgiveness program similar to township assistance programs for other essential utilities—to help pay off past customer debts to internet providers. Past debt to internet providers is a barrier to participation in low-cost programs like Comcast’s Internet Essential’s program, according to the draft plan.
Just 14 percent of low-income respondents to a mailed survey from CTC use Comcast’s Internet Essentials, according to the draft plan. Part of the role of a new city staff position could be to promote subsidized services like Comcast Internet Essentials and AT&T Access to eligible residents. The staff position could help eligible residents not just with the sign-up process, but also with enrollment, installation, and usage, according to the plan.
The $60,000 agreement with CTC for the work to develop the digital equity plan was made in December 2019, as a part of an extension to an existing contract. The 2016 contract between CTC and Bloomington included work “in support of the City’s goals to secure ubiquitous fiber-optic high-speed internet access throughout our community.”
Additional background and links are available on the city of Bloomington’s webpage on digital equity.