The pandemic shined a bright light on the digital divide in Portland and across the country, as schools and some workplaces went online almost overnight. Two years later, how has Portland responded to the issue? Adelle Pomeroy is the digital inclusion manager at Free Geek, an organization with a mission to enable digital access in Portland. Elisabeth Perez is the director of Portland’s Office for Community Technology and Carmen Rubio is a Portland city commissioner. They join us with details.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The pandemic shined a bright light on the digital divide in Portland and across the country, that schools and many workplaces went online almost overnight. At the same time, a big infusion of federal money came in to help address disparities to access in terms of access to the devices and internet connectivity. So two years later, how are the city of Portland and a local nonprofit responding to this issue? Adelle Pomeroy is a digital inclusion manager at Free Geek. Their mission is to enable digital access in Portland. Elisabeth Perez is the Director of the Portland Office for Community Technology and Carmen Rubio is a Portland City Commissioner. Welcome to all three of you.
Adelle Pomeroy: Thank you.
Elisabeth Perez: Thank you
Miller: Adelle Pomeroy, first. So I mentioned that the pandemic shined a light on the digital divide. I’m curious in the big picture of the extent to which you think it brought our attention to an existing divide or exacerbated a divide?
Pomeroy: Oh wow, that’s a good question. I think that it did both things. I think that it brought a lot of attention to an existing divide, but it also removed the stopgap, sort of like societal and cultural structures we had in place to provide access to folks who didn’t have it in their home. So people who, students who got access to the internet or to technology through their schools no longer had that access because of the pandemic. Folks who were going to the library to use computer libraries or the Multnomah County library here in Portland, were not able to do that when libraries had to close their doors due to the pandemic. So it both sort of shone a light on who had access in their home, in their living space, but also really removed the access that was more publicly available.
Miller: Schools did put in place a variety of programs for kids in terms of taking home technology. How much did that address this issue?
Pomeroy: In a lot of ways it did address the issue. So schools, often many of the districts provided Chromebooks to students but would leave out sort of that access to the internet. So while students would have access to a physical device, we heard a lot from community members and parents and families who were needing to access the internet through a library or coffee shop or fast food parking lots using those devices.
Miller: So they had a device but they couldn’t connect to the internet necessarily?
Pomeroy: Exactly, yeah.
Miller: Elisabeth Perez, the city used Cares Act funding to provide Portlanders with technology kits. Where does that program stand right now?
Perez: So the exciting thing is that during the Digital Divide Tech Kit Project, we were able to allocate $5 million in Cares funding which got us 3,500 chromebooks, 500 of which had built an LTE connectivity, about 500 iPads, assistive technology and then really covered about 8,500 internet assistance cards to cover the cost of internet for a year. So that was a great dent, right? But we know that from our Learnings and Cares that it definitely didn’t meet the full need. So I’m excited to say that the city council allocated an additional 3.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, which puts our total at 8.5 million in federal funds that the city has dedicated to bridging the digital divide in our city. We’re anticipating that these funds are going to be used mostly for devices. So as Adelle was saying, we still just need, even if we have access at the library or access at a coffee shop, we do need that access at home. We really shouldn’t be using public or shared computers to handle sensitive personal information. We’re in tax season right now, there’s information that just shouldn’t be shared on public computers. So that hasn’t changed the need even though we are slowly coming out of the pandemic or going through a cycle of coming out of the pandemic, that need for home internet and a personal device is still there. So we’re working right now on the community engagement for that program. We have a lot of lessons learned from the Cares Project. We want to make sure that we’re keeping our community leading and center, and as we found it’s not a one size fits all solution. So there were supply chain issues, we had to act really quickly. So Chromebooks and iPads were something that we could get. But we also understand that those are also both limited. So we want to do more work with our community to figure out what the needs are right now and be able to deliver on that.
Miller: Carmen Rubio, if we’re talking about devices, whether it’s a Chromebook or an iPad or or even some kind of wifi card, we’re not at the level of talking about structural changes, but we are talking about a lot of federal money, which is probably going to be one time money. I’m curious how you’re thinking about the best way to use this money so it can affect the highest number of people in the most meaningful ways.
Carmen Rubio: Yes, so that’s a very good question because you’re right, this is one time money. So we need to think in terms of where we can be strategic and in thinking about that, it’s really about setting up the city for a good foundation to move forward so that we can build upon that. It’s unlikely that we’re gonna get this amount of opportunity at this one time, but the reality is we’re living in a time where our technology is rapidly changing. Our demographics have rapidly changed and government needs to catch up and we’re also experiencing, in real time, that digital access sped up because of the pandemic and literacy are becoming the new normal. And without the technology and skills, Portland’s leaders and residents will be left behind. And so this is not just an obligation that the city must provide, It’s an opportunity for us to set up the foundation in the right way. And it’s really a three legged stool of needs that we need to be providing for the community. That includes what Elisabeth and Adelle have talked about. We need internet access at a very basic level. We need devices that people can use to access the internet, but we also need the digital skills. People need to know how to be as effectively engaged in the digital economy if they want to be a part of this community, moving forward post pandemic and you really can’t move forward on one piece without addressing the other pieces. So this will lay a really excellent foundation for us to build upon later.
Miller: Adelle Pomeroy, I started by asking you about schools and kids, but what do you see in terms of the needs among adults right now?
Pomeroy: Wow, we see a huge need among adults, our youth programs or programs where we can disperse free laptops and desktop computers to youth are often overrun by requests for adults as well. We briefly opened a program called Gifted Geek Box, but we had over 700 applications in a period of weeks, and had to shutter it until we could actually serve all of those folks. We find that often parents will apply for their kids to get free computers from our programs so that they can use them as an entire family. And we often see students writing to us in sort of the comment boxes of the application or in thank you notes letting us know that it’s the first time their family has had access as a group to the computer and it’s really a shared device among the whole family, but adult access to both digital skills and especially in sort of the workforce development area as all of this, all of these jobs are becoming more remote or the expectation for having these digital skills that Carmen Rubio just touched on has become effectively a requirement. And and so Free Geek is definitely seeing sort of access to the internet as less of a luxury and more needs to be treated as a utility
and also funded in a foundational way and structural way as a utility.
Miller: Well, Carmen Rubio, what would that look like? I mean, because right now, I mean internet in Portland’s, it’s not municipal wifi, I mean, and it’s different than say the way we deal with the Portland Water Bureau, what role should the city play in this?
Rubio: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And it’s something that ultimately is our big vision, right? It’s to close the digital divide and enable communities to better participate in this economy. But it will, we will need to have lower cost municipal broadband option for Portlanders to have access to, like any other public utility, and it is a big goal and it requires a complex set of planning and fundraising and a financial plan for that, but we have no other choice but to really set ourselves up for this direction in the future. And so I’m excited about that goal. It may seem far away, but it’s something that we need to be talking about now.
Miller: Elisabeth Perez. I’ve often heard about the digital divide being talked about as one that basically maps in an urban/rural divide way, i.e. cities have broadband and the slower or spottier connections are in rural areas. What do you think is missing when we look at the picture that way?
Perez: Yeah, that is just not true. I mean, we have very different needs. Well the needs are the same, I think our challenges are different. So I think your point is relevant because by federal definitions, the majority of the Portland metro region is considered served. So when we look at federal broadband maps, they’re informed by the telecommunication carriers and they’re self reporting. If one household in a census block is served, then that means the entire community is served. They’re not considering speed. So the speed to qualify as being served is also too slow. You can’t have two adults on the same line, let alone an entire family. And then just because the household has access to the internet doesn’t mean that the cost of service is affordable. I’ll note that low income service levels often have even slower speeds or they throttle once they reach a data cap. So we have at least 22% of our households or more than 143,000 Portlanders without broadband connection, and I think this is a statewide issue. So I don’t think it should be urban versus rural. It should really be that all of Oregon and really all of the states should be connected because when we talk about Portlanders, we talk about Portlanders as being people who live, work, play and worship in our city, which means that they’re now always within the geographic lines of Portland.
Miller: Elisabeth Perez, we have to take a break, but thanks so much for joining us. That’s Elisabeth, Perez, Carmen Rubio and Adelle Pomeroy.
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