Last month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia released a brief exposing the gaping digital inequities between those with and those without broadband access and the related impact on the city’s worsening unemployment rate.
The data is sobering, though not necessarily surprising. In short, it is far harder to find employment, and stay employed, without a computer and internet access at home. In fact, there is a 27 percentage point gap in employment between Philadelphians with and without home internet and only 47 percent of households in Philadelphia’s low and moderate income neighborhoods subscribe to broadband.
This fact is compounded upon decades of systemic racism. The neighborhoods with the highest rates of broadband connectivity are the predominantly white sections of Center City and the Northwest, while the lowest subscription areas are the predominantly Black and Latinx communities of West, Southwest, and North Philadelphia.
Perhaps most depressing of all is that this data was collected before the Covid crisis. Sit with that for a second. Our entire worlds — from school to socializing to nearly every kind of work — has been moved online.
Since March, nearly 1 in 6 Pennsylvania workers have filed for unemployment. With Philadelphia stubbornly holding onto the mantle of poorest big city in the United States, it can be reasonably assumed that the city’s rise in unemployment is steeper still.
Now in the seventh month of the pandemic, with little end or relief in sight, Philaelphia’s leaders, in order to prevent economic and social disaster that will last generations, must come together to form, and enforce, a rigorous digital equity plan.
To stave off mental and physical health crises created by a lack of telehealth options, economic crises created by a lack of access to job portals, and educational crises created by lack of access to virtual learning, all Philadelphia homes need broadband internet and computers with which to access it.
Philadelphia is home to Comcast, one of America’s largest and most profitable cable and internet providers, with nearly 30 million internet subscribers, 30 million cable subscribers, and revenues of more than $100 billion in 2019 alone.
If Comcast won’t step up and once and for all wipe out the digital divides in the city it calls home, then the time has come to end the tax-abatement program that has allowed Comcast to sidestep taxes to the tune of more than $60 million. And resurrect Wireless Philadelphia, the nation’s first attempt at a publicly owned and operated wireless network.
This isn’t a handout, it’s access. It’s justice.
We are at a digital crossroads, in Philadelphia and in the nation at large.
Let’s take the road less traveled, the one wide enough for all.