Community Voices: Let’s expand equitable digital access

We are seeing a shift into a digital world. Internet access is increasingly becoming a requirement to participate in education, health care and the workforce.  More and more, national companies are embracing the idea of virtual reality, and on the city level, we’re seeing growth in the use of social media and digital engagement more than ever before. We even consume our news mostly online. 

And, while this is an exciting and fast-paced shift, we MUST make sure that we are not leaving people behind as we grow. We need to work continuously to improve equity and access to digital services for the most vulnerable across our communities.  

An invaluable tool to help us ensure that digital equity and access has been the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program. Started as an expansion of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program passed by President Joe Biden in 2021, ACP implemented many consumer protections to ensure access to broadband services regardless of credit status; established a standard $30 per month subsidy for internet access; and provided eligible households with a one-time $100 subsidy to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers.  

To date, this program has served millions of American families. As of February 2024, 22 million households across the country are enrolled in this program, including 759,488 in Pennsylvania and 50,365 in the Pittsburgh region. However, without an additional funding allocation, the resources dedicated to this program are projected to run out in April 2024, and at present, new applications are no longer being accepted.  

This is a huge setback, and we have to push back.  

The City of Pittsburgh, and my administration, are committed to the expansion of equitable digital access. In October 2023, in partnership with Allegheny County, we announced the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition’s Strategic Plan focused on four areas of greatest need for digital equity in our region: 

  • High-quality affordable broadband internet service. 
  • Computing devices that meet residents’ needs.  
  • Training to improve the digital skills, knowledge and literacy of our residents. 
  • Accessible technical support. 

The PDEC Strategic Plan also calls on us to create a free regional Wi-Fi network, and we are working diligently to identify funding opportunities that will allow us to begin building this network using existing assets. 

Our city was recognized as a 2023 Digital Trailblazer by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for our holistic approach to connecting all residents, recognizing the need for not only robust connections but also devices to utilize those connections in addition to training and support. 

In May 2023, the City of Pittsburgh was named one of five White House Workforce Hubs focused on building a diverse and skilled workforce with pathways to family sustaining jobs. In our work as a Workforce Hub, we’ve identified broadband as a target sector for promoting career pathways.  

Finally, the city is being vocal in its support of the ACP Expansion Act. Introduced on Jan. 10, this bill would allocate an additional $7 billion in funding to extend this critical tool for families across the country. And I am proud to be one of 174 mayors who signed a letter urging our congressional leaders to swiftly pass this bipartisan legislation.  

The reality is that access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity. And to work toward my vision of a city that is safe, welcoming and thriving, ALL residents, specifically those in historically underserved communities, must have the resources they need to thrive in the digital world.  

We are working diligently with both public and private partners to implement the PDEC’s Strategic Plan and close Pittsburgh’s digital divide by 2030. But the roll-off of the Affordable Connectivity Program will be a stumbling block in our path. I urge you to call on your congresspeople to pass the ACP Expansion Act. 

It’s on all of us to build a city for all, and I’m proud of the many partnerships we’ve built with residents, local leaders and legislators to place digital equity at the forefront as we move forward. But there is still work to be done, and to that I say: Let’s Go Get It. 

See the full piece via the Pittsburg Union Progress here.