OPINION” Digital equity: The fourth utility

By Lorraine Connelly

Congress hasn’t been able to agree on much lately, but it is significant to note that last November the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act passed as part of the infrastructure legislation, and funding has begun rolling out to states. The act requires that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration establish grant programs for promoting digital equity, supporting digital inclusion activities, and assisting state-led efforts to facilitate the adoption of broadband.

Since the 1950s, basic household utilities have been water, gas, and electricity. But a fourth utility has emerged for the 21st century — broadband access. It’s hard to believe that this August 6, the Internet will be 31 years old. Yet some individuals and families are unable to afford this now vital utility and the significant benefits that information connectivity offers.

The Connecticut State Library, using Institute of Museums and Library Services ARPA funds, launched a Digital Navigator project, awarding grants to libraries in Hamden, East Hartford, Stamford, and New Haven as part of the State Library’s Digital Inclusion efforts. CSL formed the CT Libraries and Partners for Digital Equity Coalition to impact digital equity issues.

The director of Library Development for the Connecticut State Library, Dawn La Valle, notes, “The four libraries received $100,000 each and used part of the grant funds to hire and train digital navigators. The goal is to provide a model for Connecticut communities to use the funds they received as part of the ARPA broadband to support digital navigators.”

 “The digital divide,” says La Valle, “has been an issue for decades. The pandemic exposed the divide as schools closed and turned to remote instruction. Under Governor Lamont’s Everybody Learns initiatives, Chromebooks were distributed to students but there were still homes without internet access. While vouchers for internet service were offered, many families did not take advantage of them. We are working to encourage communities to take advantage of the internet vouchers and low-cost broadband.”

Advocates for digital equity such as La Valle consider internet access “a civil right.” She adds, “Like mortgage redlining, communities of color often pay more for the same product or service just because of where they live, and this is historically unfair.” 

A 2021 Pew Study supports this claim, “roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (24%) say they don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services or a desktop or laptop computer.” Another demographic disproportionately affected is the elderly — approximately 22 million older Americans continue to lack broadband access at home, which amounts to 42 percent of the nation’s over-65 population.

I asked Library Director Jane Fisher how Wallingford could benefit from a grant for a digital navigator position which would be dedicated towards assisting residents without devices, internet access, digital life skills or tech support.

Says Fisher, “the Wallingford Community Resource Alliance, a group of social service providers, local foundations and other community support organizations, conducted a community needs assessment last spring on how COVID was affecting Wallingford residents. That process helped to identify the importance of low-cost broadband, access to free or low-cost tech devices, and assistance navigating online information. The Wallingford Public Library is well positioned to help meet these needs.” Fisher intends to apply for a grant for digital navigator services through ARPA funds allotted to the town.

During the pandemic the Wallingford Public Library supported its residents by distributing 18 Chromebooks and Hotspot kits to three Wallingford community agencies for long-term use by their clients. The total cost for 18 kits (including a 1-year service plan) was $7,300 and was funded under the provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act, administered by the Connecticut State Library. The library also created a handout entitled “Low-Cost Home Internet & Computers: What Are My Options?” welcoming residents to use library computers to enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

For a town that had the prescience to establish its own electric division more than a century ago to circumvent the rising costs of operating gas-fired streetlamps, its reluctance to embrace the fourth utility seems out of step. Through the years, Wallingford residents have benefited from low electric rates. Affordable broadband would once again put the town on a forward-looking path.

Strategic investments in “long-lived assets” such as broadband is in keeping with the original intent of ARPA funds. Bridging the digital divide is no longer the luxury of a few, as such access is essential for cultivating lifetime skills and channeling critical information to all residents. Digital connectivity can help us stay healthy, meaningfully engaged, and sustain employment. Without equitable access to digital resources, societal inequities will continue to grow.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.


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