When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, libraries, and other institutions that aim to serve the public, the disparities among “the public” were highlighted in ways that have long been present, but are frequently ignored. One important gap was access to the internet. When people cannot get online, they are excluded from participating in nearly every daily interaction that we must conduct to live in the current US.
Cunningham Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth reported this anecdote in late March, 2020: “I checked on my neighbor, who is an immigrant with two children, since I had not seen them in weeks. Their internet had been broken for a month. They said that for two weeks they had been seeking educational videos on YouTube—the middle schooler had figured out how to link a sibling’s tablet to her cell, but it wasn’t working well…. The mom had not heard from the teacher, since it appears teachers have been using the Class Tag app to reach out. She had this app but did not know how to log in or use it. I connected the mom to the principal, who immediately connected her to the teacher. I took the tablet and, with access codes from the teacher, have been adding and configuring apps.” Two months later the landlord had still not fixed their internet.
Due to the swift local shutdowns in mid-March there was an urgent need for cybernavigators (Danielle’s impromptu role) to help students and their families get information and access to digital tools. Those who were not able to get online didn’t have crucial information, risking their own and everyone else’s health. With libraries shuttered and face-to-face communication practically non-existent, how were people supposed to know what to do? It was possible to get two months of free internet from Xfinity/Comcast; I3 Broadband gave free or discounted services to hundreds of their current customers and installed new services for others who could not afford it. But in most cases, the application process was confusing, and doubly difficult without some access to internet or a walk-in store.
Even if internet access were available, people still needed devices. The schools loaned a Chromebook or tablet to every family that needed one, but only one per family. If you were not in school, where would you find the hardware you needed? Furthermore, there’s still the need to configure any machine with passwords, settings, and applications, a huge challenge for those unfamiliar with information technologies.
As schools shifted to remote learning, some groups worked to broaden access. Together with the state, local entities identified where wifi hotspots could be accessed, since libraries were closed. They were listed on online maps and shared via social media. A multi-unit team also organized a system where UI Ride buses provided wifi in seven locations for several hours each weekday. Public school teachers and University of Illinois staff provided publicity and instructions in several languages. That project launched in mid-April and ended on May 29.
Now, in June, with $15,000 in funding from the Urbana-Champaign Big BroadbandCommunity Benefit Fund, the Champaign Public Library has added 45 hotspots to their collection—bringing the total to 80. These hotspots give community members free access to the internet. If you need a tech device—a Chromebook, hotspot, or Kindle—they can be checked out to adult Champaign Public Library cardholders through the same process that one uses to request books: select and order items in the catalog, and pick them up curbside when they are ready. Questions? Call 217-403-2000 during curbside hours.
The Long Campaign to Provide Broadband to the Underserved
In 2009, the University of Illinois applied for several grants to the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), and received federal and state funding of $30 million to design and install fiber-optic infrastructure underground and connect community anchor institutions and homes to the fiber optics in 11 underserved census tracts. Underserved areas were defined as places where fewer than 40 percent of residents were subscribed to broadband services. The unique multi-agency consortium that formed to implement this major grant and then administer the network is called Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B), and includes the cities of Champaign and Urbana, the University of Illinois, and the current private partner, i3 Broadband. UC2B, now with 501(c)(3) status, has been able to provide access to improved broadband services at affordable prices for some underserved households and community institutions, but challenges remain.
Training and Education to Support Community Access
While one grant was funded, the applications to fund public computing centers and sustainable broadband adoption were not, leading to extensive negotiations (2009-2016) to allocate a small percentage of the income from broadband subscriptions to support education and training. The end result was the Community Benefit Fund (CBF), which distributed initial mini-grants to 11 applicants in January, 2018, and created a temporary Community Help Desk (2018-19) to provide basic desktop support to the community.
The CBF was planned to be a continuation of Parkland College’s Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity grant, “Eliminate the Digital Divide.” From 2007-13 Parkland College received funds for training, through which an estimated 750 individuals accessed computers and technology training. Participants also had access to free or low-cost complete computer systems donated by the Digital Equality Initiative (DEI), a local non-profit which acquired out-of-service equipment from large corporations, cities, state agencies, UIUC, and local businesses. The DEI, in partnership with other groups, donated an estimated 2000-plus computer systems between 2007 and 2013. In addition, the DEI created computer training centers throughout Champaign County.
A Distorted Digital Spectrum Continues
Although the “Eliminate the Digital Divide” grant ended in 2013, the urgent need for digital literacy and effective use of digital tools continues. The 2020 COVID-19 crisis brought a summer of cancelled activities for youth, with no swimming pools, few camps, and online activities available only to those who can connect to the internet. One response is the Hip Hop Xpress, an in-progress retooled school bus, which now has wifi. Plans are taking shape to move the bus around our communities to provide some outdoor activities and connectivity for youth and their families during this pandemic.
Systems of Surveillance
Poor and marginalized communities are not completely excluded from the digital world—they are unwilling targets of surveillance and registration for social services. This sort of “participation” in carceral systems and government-managed procedures ensnares and punishes people rather than empowering them. As UIUC geographer Brian Jefferson has noted in his book Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age, “Digital technologies have transformed the geography of carceral space, augmenting older forms of racial criminalization via software and dispersed sensors.” The digital world excludes many people from profitable or beneficial digital effects, but includes them in its negative impacts.
It’s clear that the information economy leaves out people or incorporates them in ways that harm rather than empower them; but often ignored is the price we all pay for these unequal structures. The digital world is much less creative, dynamic, and responsive, because people who are not online are not contributing to it. Communities will be strengthened when everyone has the access and skills necessary to participate in digital worlds.
A Few Resources
Community Benefit Fund of UC2B Help Desk
“Digitize and Punsh” April 14, 2020 podcast
Data for Black Lives http://d4bl.org/ a movement of people who use data science to create concrete and measurable change in Black people’s lives.
“The Internet is a Trash Fire,” TED talk by Lisa Nakamura, director of Digital Studies Institute at University of Michigan
Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2I2), UCLA, run by Safiya Noble and Sarah Roberts
National Digital Inclusion Alliance
User Research Lab (NYC), launched by Desmond Upton Patton to support formerly incarcerated citizens’ access to tech as a career
Brian Bell has operated Parkland’s Illinois WorkNet Center, serving the unemployed, and taught in the Computer Science and Information Technology Department. Brian also has worked at Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club; at Crossroads Community Church, developing computer curriculum at the middle school level; and at the Urban League of Champaign-Urbana, where he set up and coordinated a community technology center.
Sharon Irish retired as project coordinator with the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) at UIUC in 2018, but continues as a research affiliate in the UIUC School of Information Sciences.