A picture of a student using a tablet.
A student uses i-Ready's math program, part of the curriculum at a DCPS elementary school. Photo courtesy of Grace Hu.

Throughout the pandemic, the D.C. Council has heard calls to provide high-speed, reliable internet access to all residents who need it. But achieving such a goal is not as straightforward as it might seem.

As people across the country migrated to Zoom and other online platforms for work and school in the spring of 2020, the inequitable nature of internet access became undeniable. Not only could wealthier people afford steady, reliable, high-speed internet to stay connected to their jobs and online courses, but they were also more likely to maintain their income through remote work. In contrast, people with lower incomes often struggled to keep up with this new pace of virtual life either because of the cost or a lack of internet service in their neighborhoods.

Recently published data from the Pew Research Center reveals the magnitude of this problem in the United States. According to an August survey, 39% of upper-income users of broadband internet services reported having issues with their connectivity either “sometimes” or “often,” compared to 60% of low-income users. In the same survey, 6% of upper-income broadband users reported worrying about how to pay for their internet connection compared to 46% of low-income users. The numbers for middle-income broadband users were 47% and 23%, respectively.

At the local level, the disparities are even more extreme. While only 13% of D.C. residents overall do not subscribe to internet services, that percentage is three times higher in wards with higher poverty rates. About a third of people living in wards 7 and 8 — where the poverty rate hovers around 30% — lack an internet subscription. In Ward 5, where the poverty rate is just over 15%, nearly a quarter of people do not subscribe to internet services.

The D.C. government has expanded its efforts to wrestle with the problem since the onset of the pandemic. In September 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a $3.3 million free internet initiative — Internet for All — intended to link students with cost-free 12-month subscriptions to services provided by Comcast or RCN. This past summer, the District set aside $26.5 million in federal funding to expand internet accessibility by providing devices such as computers and tablets to people who needed them.

[Read more: Millions in funding set to flood digital inclusion projects, but advocates say the specific spending is not data-driven]

In recent months, the D.C. Council has been exploring ways to bridge this gap in access, commonly known as the digital divide. In April, 10 members introduced legislation calling for the establishment of a digital equity division within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to study how internet access impacts households across the District.

Implementing some of the measures envisioned by the bill presents several challenges. At a Government Operations and Facilities Committee hearing held on Oct. 20, local officials and representatives from various D.C.-based nonprofits discussed ways to approach the issue. While there was broad consensus that affordable high-speed internet service should be accessible to all, the discussion became mired in debates over what could qualify as “high speed” and whether local legislation might get in the way of possible federal funding. Some participants argued that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill — still being negotiated in the Senate — could offer solutions to the problem local officials are trying to solve themselves.

At-large Councilmember Robert White, who chairs the committee and co-introduced the Internet Equity Amendment Act of 2021, stressed that the issue of internet access affects a wide demographic.

“It’s not just households with school-aged children that need affordable internet connections. Most households need it now,” White said during the hearing, which was itself held virtually via Zoom.

[Read more: Lack of internet access at home makes it incredibly challenging for adult learners to continue classes virtually]

Anyone lacking adequate access to the internet, he added, is likely to encounter problems with searching for jobs, participating in online training, and accessing telehealth services.

White’s sentiment was echoed by others who relayed similar concerns in their testimonies at the hearing.

“What may seem like mere technological challenges has major substantive impacts, especially when experienced in the context of trying to participate in remote hearings, applying for benefits, or otherwise accessing critical government services,” said Zenia Laws, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C.

Laws went on to recount the challenges many of her clients face in trying to attend virtual legal proceedings and other critical online events.

But as several attendees pointed out, simply expanding access to the internet does not address all of the problems created by the digital divide. Speaking briefly at the hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen — another co-introducer of the Internet Equity Amendment Act — highlighted a related issue.

“In some cases, fast internet is available but it’s either out of a family’s budget or a cost burden that prevents them from spending money on other necessities,” he said.

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau through the American Community Survey shows a strong correlation between household income and internet subscriptions within the District. From 2014 to 2018, 51% of D.C. households making less than $20,000 did not subscribe to internet services. By comparison, only 6% of households making more than $75,000 did not have internet subscriptions.

The average monthly cost of broadband internet within the city in 2020 was about $70, according to a study conducted by think tank New America. Prices vary, however, depending on the speed and the provider.

Members of Byte Back, a local advocacy group focused on digital literacy, testified that some households in the city pay as much as $200 per month for the internet services they need.

At the start of the hearing, Allen cited similar concerns as he called for the city to identify a baseline internet speed that serves the needs of all its residents.

“While we can’t regulate ISPs [internet service providers], we can certainly set out a goal for what our own programs will do,” he said.

But as Chief Technology Officer Lindsey Parker pointed out, establishing a baseline speed for high-speed access is not a straightforward endeavor.

This is because ISPs have no way of guaranteeing the speed of their services at all times.

“They say that they’re providing a certain speed, [but] they cannot guarantee that they’re going to provide that speed at every single minute,” Parker said.

There’s an inherent limitation to bandwidth, which depends on many variables, including how many people are accessing the service at any given moment, according to Parker

Parker also discussed DC-Net, which the city owns and operates. Consisting of about 800 miles of fiber, this network is connected to 650 buildings and provides internet access to an array of organizations, including some federal agencies. She said her office has been looking into whether the city could leverage this existing infrastructure to provide internet services to its residents.

There are about 3,000 households in the District who do not have any access at all to high-speed internet, according to Parker. Given that this lack of access affects a relatively small portion of the city’s population, she said, the broad challenge is not infrastructure but instead adoption of internet services.

“There are a significant number of residents that lack the digital literacy skills to engage in basic online tasks like job searches, telehealth sessions, and digital government benefits,” she said.

Robert Oliver, president of the Friends of the D.C. Public Library, said that free computers and Wi-Fi are two of the most sought-after services provided by the library system. Many visitors endure long waits or even stand in line to access a computer, he said, and some even use Wi-Fi by hanging around library branches when they’re closed.

While most people testifying at the hearing said they agree with the spirit of expanding access to high-speed internet, some worried about the unintended effects of adopting new local legislation.

Laura Miller Brooks, a senior transportation and infrastructure associate with the Federal City Council, a pro-business civic advocacy group, urged against actions that might make it difficult for the city to take advantage of any federal funding made available through Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“Because we have this opportunity, I think that we should be very cautious about how our local recommendations align with some of these federal opportunities to catalyze this work,” Brooks explained.

Parker told White she agrees this is reason to tread carefully.

“The only caution that I do want to impress upon you and your colleagues, as you consider this important topic, is that we have a very opportune moment to use federal funds to address this divide,” the chief technology officer said.

While agreeing it was “prudent” to consider the potential for federal funding, White cautioned against waiting on something that is not yet approved.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz, among other lawmakers, have opposed parts of the $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes increased investments in bridges, roads, and railways as well as expansion of broadband internet. The bill — criticized by Republicans as too expensive but hailed by supporters as full of essential investments — has hit a number of roadblocks in Congress since it was introduced this summer.

Meanwhile, the local bill introduced in April calls for a series of actions to take place. Within 90 days of enactment, OCTO would have to deliver a detailed report to the council regarding internet accessibility in the city. The report would also require the identification of households that do not have internet connections and a recommendation on minimum connection speeds.

As drafted, the bill would also set a six-month time frame for ensuring that families earning under 50% of the median family income not pay more than 0.5% of their household earnings for service with the recommended internet speeds. One year after the law is enacted, OCTO would have to provide a master plan to the council on how to provide accessible high-speed internet to all District residents.

“We can’t delay forever,” White said. “If this window closes, we can’t say, ‘Well, let’s wait till next time it opens.’ I do think it’s right to understand what the federal government might do. But I also think that if we’re going to see it, we’re going to see it relatively soon.”

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This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.