Internet Inequality in Philadelphia
During the summer of 2020, I had just finished my first year of medical school at Temple and was excited to join a program called Bridging the Gaps which aims to link students in the Philadelphia region with community service projects during the summer. I worked with a program called Steppingstone Scholars in improving educational equality for Philadelphia students through tutoring, mentoring, and career planning. However, with the unprecedented pandemic affecting our region, there was an important task to be tackled. More than a quarter of Philadelphians earning less than $30k did not have access to the internet . With the task in mind, Steppingstone Scholars organized a program named Internet Essentials aimed at addressing this inequality.
I interviewed families who were identified as having accessibility issues. I was excited to become involved and to learn directly of the challenges our neighbors were experiencing. To this end, I wanted to lay out some of the major concerns expressed to me and how these needs were addressed.
More than a quarter of Philadelphians earning less than $30k did not have access to the internet .
First and Foremost: Finances
Having more than a quarter of a city’s lower income population without internet access is a staggering statistic. However, it isn’t difficult to understand the relationship when one considers the overwhelming price of internet. For instance, for 200 Mbps of internet from Comcast, one can expect to pay at least 40 dollars per month or 480 dollars per year plus fees . This was a common concern among the families I interviewed, and it remains an important roadblock to address. Without the option for affordable internet, families are left with a complicated balancing equation that squeezes other important commodities out of their lives. Fortunately, Internet Essentials partnered with Comcast in order to offer internet plans at reduced prices (about 10 dollars per month) for access to a slow download speed of 25 Mbps . While limited in speed, this small victory allowed many families in Philadelphia to secure an affordable internet package. Unfortunately, this only scraped the surface of a city-wide inequality.
Whether you just moved to Philadelphia or grew up in the area like me, you know that Comcast’s ubiquity is more than just its two skyscrapers in Center City. The company also provides internet to a significant percentage of the Philadelphia population. In fact, depending on where you live, Comcast may be your only option. When I was speaking with families about their internet concerns, many shared a common question: how do I get out of the grasp of Comcast? When you sign up for internet, a contract obliges you to pay the bill each month in return for their service. However, for many of us, getting behind in finances is not uncommon. It is, however, a fairly unforgiving circumstance for countless lower-income families who may not have an immediate backup to pay outstanding balances. The issue is two-fold with the fact that Internet Essentials, a program aimed at improving access, disqualifies individuals who have outstanding balances with Comcast, adding another roadblock in the path of securing affordable internet. Faced with this problem, programs such Steppingstone Scholars offered to absorb some of the outstanding balances so that families could qualify. This is clearly a temporary solution to the problem, but it also highlights another major issue in the city, the prioritization of capitalistic gain over resource equity. At what point will bailouts not be enough? If a pandemic forcing everyone to continue their education online doesn’t force change, then what exactly will?
Without affordable connection, the lingering inequality that surrounds education in the city will remain.
Sacrificing Quality in the Face of a Pandemic
Internet packages offered at reduced prices are a viable and widely-used solution to the financial roadblocks experienced by many families in Philadelphia. The major caveat is that with lower prices comes slower download speed. Download speed is the metric used to compare internet qualities and serves as a useful measure when comparing packages and understanding what might serve your household best. For instance, in a household that uses 3-5 devices for 4K streaming, web surfing, and email, 50-100 Mbps download speed is a commonly recommended number . Unfortunately, the affordable packages often don’t cover these basic necessities. The 25 Mbps speed that was offered through Internet Essentials would only cover 1-2 devices (including phones) in a household . In the scenario we have all been living in for the past 10 months where nearly everyone in a given household spends their school or workday online, internet options for families with significant economic burdens are not only scarce but are lacking in quality and may not even be suitable to fulfill their obligations.
Forget Internet, We Need More Devices
Obviously, internet is useless without a device to use it on. Myself, and many of my friends and peers are fortunate enough to utilize a laptop, tablet, and cellphone. We seem to be in the minority compared to many families in Philadelphia that I spoke with, who utilize 1-3 devices in their entire household for school and work. That being said, some have even more device disadvantages and are limited to one computer in their household and faced with having to balance sharing times. Imagine a situation where a job requires the use of internet for a video-meeting, but you have school children who need to spend their school day logged in. How can a family prioritize one over the other? Should they have to?
Philadelphia’s Response, Is It Enough?
Philadelphia recognized early on the internet inequality that existed before the pandemic and outlined programs in place to secure accessibility. In the face of the pandemic, Philadelphia schools even offered Chromebooks for some students. In an attempt to cover all bases ranging from lowering internet prices to improving device access, it is well within reason to say that the city responded appropriately. However, the battle is far from won. Families in Kensington, Mantua and many more continue to struggle with the financial roadblocks of connecting their kids to internet for school. Without affordable connection, the lingering inequality that surrounds education in the city will remain. While the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the world, I share the belief with others that its end can precipitate some benefits. Through legislation and revised incentives, education quality can be improved in the city, a feat that begins with getting more students and families connected to the internet.
Author: Julian Rana
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.
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