One-Third of New Yorkers Don’t Have Internet Access. That Is an Issue for Funders
By Eve Stotland, Program Officer for Education and Human Justice at The New York Community Trust
Like many New Yorkers, my household is suffering from Zoom fatigue. For the past 14 months, my husband and I have spent our workdays on Zoom; our 13-year-old daughter has attended school on Zoom; and we have had doctors’ appointments by Zoom. In the words of our teenager, we are over it.
But what if we didn’t have access to Zoom? Or to the internet at all? According to the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, thirty percent of the City’s households do not have a broadband subscription, and almost 18 percent—more than 1.5 million New Yorkers—have neither a mobile connection nor Wi-Fi. Beginning in March 2020, people without internet could not attend school, enroll in unemployment benefits, attend a community board meeting, or see a doctor. Internet access is no longer a luxury—it is an essential service similar to heat and electricity. Lack of internet access was a problem before COVID-19, but the pandemic turned it into a crisis – and one which will not simply abate as quarantines end.
And it’s not just broadband and Wi-Fi that are lacking. In order to get online, people need two additional things: an appropriate device (usually a computer) and the know-how to use it—often called “digital literacy.” Experts call this trifecta the “three-legged stool” of digital equity.
Because it now affects almost every aspect of contemporary life, it is hard to find an area of philanthropy that is not influenced by digital equity. Do you fund education? Students need internet access to complete their homework; parents need access to navigate NYC’s high school admissions process. Do you support healthcare? Telehealth improves health outcomes—if patients can get online. Are you a patron of the arts? Live streaming events can reach new audiences—but only if that audience is connected.
Most New Yorkers who lack Wi-Fi live in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, where large internet providers have declined to build infrastructure or compete for market share in low-income communities of color. In many neighborhoods, there is only one internet service provider, creating a monopoly and driving up prices. Almost half of the households living in poverty do not have broadband at home. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have significantly lower rates of home broadband subscribership than white or Asian New Yorkers. The cost of high-speed internet is well beyond the reach of households struggling to pay rent. A few companies offered free introductory accounts to students when the pandemic hit—for two or three months. After that, the companies started billing for the service.
Beginning on May 12, eligible households will qualify for a federal subsidy of $50 a month for broadband services—information is available at https://getemergencybroadband.org. But the government is relying on commercial internet service providers to publicize the program and to sign people up, which is—at best—a fraught plan. And, the subsidy is temporary—the program will end when the fund runs out of money or six months after the federal government declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever is sooner.
Neither the government nor the internet service providers are going to solve this problem on their own. Fortunately, NYC has a growing community of digital equity activists, including grassroots organizations, libraries, and elected officials. Over the past year, The New York Community Trust has made $1.5 million in grants for digital equity, and we plan to make more. Here are some of the strategies that philanthropy should support:
- Organizing neighborhoods to press internet service providers for higher quality, affordable service.
- Helping people sign up for government subsidies.
- Building free neighborhood WiFi networks known as “mesh networks.”
- Broadcasting existing WiFi networks from public rooftops so that it can be used for free in surrounding streets and buildings.
- Teaching people how to use technology and running tech help desks.
- Distributing or lending free laptops, tablets and hotspots.
- Building new models for community-owned and operated telecommunications infrastructure.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently signed by President Biden includes billions in subsidies for broadband infrastructure and adoption. But communities must work with government and internet service providers to ensure that those dollars create long-term, universal access. With philanthropic investment, we can help the City’s low-income communities get everyone—from students to seniors—to join the online world that so many of us (my family included) take for granted.