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City, schools working to expand broadband access

Complexity and funding issues slow a comprehensive solution, but there's short-term assistance available.

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The coronavirus pandemic has pushed some phrases into our near-daily vocabulary, phrases such as “asynchronous learning,” “hybrid schedule” and “digital divide.”

Actually, the digital divide is not new. It’s just become more obvious since the pandemic forced children into remote learning, where computer access is mandatory.

Upper and middle class families are far more likely to have broadband internet than those with lower income. A survey several years ago by the Evanston Public Library found that 14 percent of local families lack high speed internet.

Raphael Obafemi, chief financial officer for School District 65, told the Board of Education earlier this week that 65, District 202, Northwestern University and the City of Evanston are “trying to come up with a long-term solution” to bridge the digital divide, namely, a citywide wi-fi system.

Portable internet “hot spots” were distributed by the school districts and the Public Library during the pandemic, to make sure students without reliable internet access, or no access at all, could keep up with their schoolwork.

But that’s just a short-term answer. Luke Stowe, the city’s chief information officer, says the long term goal is “getting everybody who wants to be digitally connected” to have the chance to get onto a low-cost system.

Of course, a low-cost answer for the individual will probably be a high-cost item for the city. Stowe says some money may be available from the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus aid package.

However, how much can go for broadband, how much a citywide system would cost, and the time frame for getting it going, is still uncertain.

“There’s a lot to wrap our arms around,” Stowe says. “We’re still digesting everything.”

Stowe says community input will be included before any decisions are made. He says whatever may be done needs to “stand the test of time.” With technology changing so quickly, he notes, the City would not want to create a system which is quickly out of date.

Stowe also says there’s more to the digital divide than just access. There is also a “device divide,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to do a term paper on a smart phone,” he says.

Plus, there is also a “training divide,” particularly for those who may not be tech savvy.

This “three-legged stool,” as Stowe terms it, has to be totally resolved. Having high speed internet without a proper device or knowledge on how to use it is not very helpful.

While this is all sorted out, there is another short-term program which can help families afford broadband. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program provides a temporary discount to purchase internet services until six months after the federal government declares an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

For more information, go to https://www.getemergencybroadband.org/.

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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