Key Insights

Tackling the Digital Divide in Philadelphia

ESI ThoughLab

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the challenges that cities were confronting before 2020, in addition to creating new ones. For Philadelphia, the pandemic is one of the top three disruptions that the city faces today alongside social unrest and deglobalization, according to ESI ThoughtLab’s survey of 167 cities worldwide. With more people studying and working from home than ever before, providing access to connectivity and digital tools has been one of the city’s main focuses as it attempts to close the digital divide with limited budgets.  

“Philly is not unique in the crises we face, just the setting. We have our challenge of being the largest poor city in the US, and of having massive budget cuts,” said Emily Yates, Smart City Director of the city of Philadelphia. “The need to do more with less for more people now is a big challenge.”  

Connecting the city

Before COVID, the city knew that approximately a quarter of the population didn’t have quality access to the internet. When the pandemic hit, those residents had to transition to remote learning and working with low connectivity. Many also didn’t own essential tools like desktop or laptop computers. For families with several people at home, the challenge was even greater.

Philadelphia has deployed several pilots to address the digital divide while also promoting sustainability. Partnering with a company that provides a no-contact pick up system, the city began promoting the collection of unwanted computers from city residents and businesses and sharing them with local refurbisher partners. The devices were then donated to community members in need. The partnership, called PHLDonateTech, collected over 600 computers in less than two months. With the same philosophy of utilizing tools the city already has, Philadelphia is exploring how to leverage infrastructure and assets to provide more connectivity options, such as placing Wi-Fi towers on rooftops.

Another initiative, PHLConnected, is tackling the same issue but focuses on K-12 students. Partnering with Comcast Internet Essentials and T-Mobile hotspots, the city raised enough funding to connect any students who were without reliable and consistent internet connectivity. The hotspots were particularly important in providing Internet service to housing insecure families, which have an added obstacle to connectivity.

“Despite reducing the cost barrier, there are still many obstacles to getting folks connected that can stand in the way of progress,” said Juliet Fink Yates, digital inclusion fellow for the city of Philadelphia. “Some of that is on our end, some of it is just the complications of the Internet, and some of it is just the complications of people’s lives and whether they are able to actually complete the process and get logged on.”

New opportunities created by the pandemic

Despite the new challenges it created, the pandemic acted to encouraged donors to pay attention to problems like the digital divide and help city leaders with their initiatives, an exciting booster that opened up many opportunities.

“Everyone came to us and asked how we were going to get people connected. We were doing this for a long time and couldn’t get others to pay attention to this issue,” said Fink Yates. “Suddenly funders were interested, and the different ISPs and telecoms firms wanted to do more. It really opened the doors for talking about this issue at all levels of government and across the city.”

As Philadelphia looks to the future with new projects in place, and a renewed attention from donors and others in the community, it still needs to work on challenges such as coordinating its initiatives, according to Andrew Buss, the city’s deputy CIO for innovation management. The city has traditionally undertaken many projects but will need to coordinate its network to work between departments and collectively advocate for funding.

“From a sustainability perspective, that’s really the key for me. It’s what I always call the people infrastructure. I think that’s true for all the other work we do in our group, not just digital equity,” said Buss.

Circular construction in Philadelphia

Another project the city is developing a tool around urban mining and data. The city can identify where waste is being created based on housing types, and where there is a demand for reused materials. The hope is that the waste is then allocated to where it’s needed. The goal is to help facilitate a circular construction and demolition waste stream to create jobs and reduce waste going to the landfill. An important project given that the construction industry is one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions.