The first week of October is Digital Inclusion Week 2023, and two events on Wednesday in Pittsburgh will mark the observance and promote the message that everyone deserves the opportunity to use technology to live, learn, work and thrive.
First, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, with grant funding and support from Comcast, will announce a new Digital Navigator Network designed to help advance digital equity and broadband adoption efforts in the region, according to a news release.
Digital Navigator Network partnerships are being established at three community organizations — Literacy Pittsburgh, Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania and YWCA of Westmoreland County — to help people learn more about and sign up for affordable internet, use devices and acquire digital skills.
Comcast’s grant will also help the United Way expand and sustain the capacity of its PA 211 Southwest 24/7 contact center, where resource navigators connect individuals and families to health and human services in the region, the news release stated. This network will complement the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s forthcoming Digital Equity Plan.
Second, the Greater Pittsburgh Digital Inclusion Alliance has partnered with AgeWell at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill to host a roundtable discussion with older adults and Gigi Sohn, executive director of the American Association of Public Broadband, a Benton Institute senior fellow and public advocate, and a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy. She had been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on the Federal Communications Commission in 2021, but she withdrew earlier this year following opposition from Republican senators and some dissenting Democrats over her tweets critical of Fox News and opposition from a law enforcement groups.
Jennifer Blatz, program director for GPDIA, called her one of the nation’s leading advocates for open, affordable and democratic communications networks.
The “Community Conversation at the JCC: Older Adults and the Digital World” will take place from 1 to 2 p.m. at the JCC in Squirrel Hill. Light refreshments will be served and other fun incentives will be offered at the event, Blatz said. For reservations, contact Maddie Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-697-1186.
The goal for Blatz and her organization through these events and possibly more is to have 100 people signed up for the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which costs $30 a month. “First you must qualify for the program,” Blatz explained, “then you get a code for your internet provider. The funds get applied directly to your bill.”
According to the ACP website, eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price. The program is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.
Pennsylvania has many rules regarding internet service providers, or ISPs, and how they provide service to customers in a particular service area, including them having the first right of refusal to any new forms of access, Blatz also explained. The state will have access to about a billion dollars to spend on the program, she said, and the need differs. Rural counties need broadband access, and in more urban counties, such as Allegheny, access is the problem. So people use their cellphones instead of obtaining broadband access to go online.
The GPDIA has been meeting and organizing for more than two years now, after forming in 2020, with a goal of bringing together a number of nonprofit organizations that do some digital equity work to combine forces and partner. It is part of a national organization that also is sponsoring events this week.
“If we all row together in the same direction,” Blatz said, “we are more likely to qualify and obtain grants.”
That application process always requires research and information collection, she said.
“What coalitions like mine are trying to do is facilitate discussions that are not only illuminating but also for policy makers to understand the complexity of this. They don’t have a clue as to the magnitude of this problem,” Blatz said. “During the pandemic, people jumped online. As it wanes, it will be harder and harder to find these people, reach them and get them online.”
The Biden administration’s Internet for All is the biggest investment in broadband access ever, Blatz said.
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority was signed into law in December 2021 as an independent agency of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and it is focusing on closing the digital divide in the state.
The department has a survey to collect information that will assist it in developing its Five-Year Action Plan and Digital Equity Plans, which are being prepared this year by the authority. It will help Pennsylvania qualify for that “over $1 billion in federal funding to invest in our communities,” according to the survey instructions.
The survey closes this week, Blatz said.