The city has been grappling with a digital divide for sometime now, and the numbers aren’t pretty. Dallas was identified as one of the major U.S. cities with the highest percentage of households with no fixed internet access, at 42.3%. To make matters worse, there are disparities in the lack of access.
But Dallas is now working to close the gap. The city has spent $8.8 million in CARES Act funding to address the lack of internet access some experience in the city. Some of that money went toward putting together a plan to reach the end goal of total connectivity.
The city and the Dallas Independent School District commissioned CTC Technology & Energy to develop a Broadband and Digital Equity Strategic Plan. A draft of this plan presented to the City Council last Wednesday shows how big the problem is and suggests ways Dallas can fix it.
The city of Dallas equity indicators report, which tracks the fairness and justice in outcomes for and treatment of groups of people in the city, shows that before the pandemic 32% of Black and 27% of Hispanic households lacked internet access, compared with just 6% of white households.
The pandemic exacerbated the problem because everything was shifted online, making connectivity even more of a necessity. “As we moved to a virtual world, there was a sense of urgency to bridge the digital divide and get students and residents access to internet to participate in society," Genesis D. Gavino, Dallas resilience officer, told City Council. Post pandemic data shows Hispanic households are five times more likely to lack internet access.
At the outset, CTC Technology & Energy has four primary recommendations. For starters, Dallas should continue with its plan to build a 100-mile fiber optic backbone to connect city buildings and facilities. This would cost $13.5 million. It could inadvertently expand access because spare strands of city fiber could help provide connectivity in areas of Dallas where deployment by private providers has lagged.
Broadband is fairly accessible in Dallas, but consistent speeds aren’t available to everyone. CTC Technology & Energy looked at DISD’s fixed wireless pilot project at Lincoln High School as a template for providing such service with equipment mounted on school rooftops. The program at Lincoln High School installed a large cell tower on the campus to extend the school's Wi-Fi to homes within a 2-mile radius. According to KERA, this provided more reliable access than mobile hotspots for 50 students.
The city will also need to hire more staff to help residents enroll in existing subsidized and low-cost programs like Spectrum Internet Assist, Access from AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit programs.
“This is unfortuantely a national issue and an incredibly challenging one.” – Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology & Energy
A mail survey found that more people potentially qualified for such programs than those who use them. “This is unfortunately a national issue and an incredibly challenging one,” Hovis said.
It’s not clear why this is the case, but Hovis said people have to jump through several hoops to prove eligibility. CTC Technology & Energy says the city should set up a call center to help people enroll in these programs.
The fourth recommendation is to continue efforts getting devices into homes and training people how to use them. Providing 65,000 devices to households without computers would cost about $13 million. A program to provide an initial 5,000 residents with skills training for the devices would cost about $1 million. Community groups and nonprofits could help with these efforts.
The Biden administration is sending help to pay for all this.
Liz Cedillo-Pereira, chief of equity and inclusion, said the city will receive $355.4 million between now and May 2022 from the Biden Administration's American Rescue Plan Act. About $43 million of that will go toward bridging the digital divide, with $3 million set aside to expand Wi-FI at parks and recreation facilities. The rest will pay for the other projects.
Dallas has taken steps to address the divide throughout the last year.
For example, it's been working with the Internet For All Coalition made up of over 40 entities including school districts, governments, nonprofits and others to address equity in connectivity. They do this through four areas: access, affordability, devices, and skills. The goal is for every Dallas household to have high-speed, reliable internet access to devices and the skills to use it all.
The city also used some CARES Act money to help pay for a street lighting plan aimed to brighten up the shadows of Dallas’ low connectivity. The plan calls for better street lighting to help reduce crime. Through the plan, a pilot program was set up to install 10 streetlights with Wi-Fi capabilities in low internet access areas.
City Council member Jaime Resendez said if Dallas doesn't continue this work, people will be left behind. “If a person does not have access to the internet, they’re being left behind, even more so during this pandemic," he said.