March 18

How Local Government Leaders Can Help Bridge the Divide on Digital Equity

Author: Dani Esterline

Girls on laptop in public library

Local governments know the importance of a strong government website for their constituents, with features that show information constituents ask for regularly… but have we paid attention to who’s asking these questions? The reality of society post-pandemic is that humans depend heavily on the internet to make their lives easier, and expedite processes of action that may have required in-person meetings before. Still, there are pockets of communities across the U.S. that don’t have access to the internet. That’s where we get into local governments and the importance of understanding digital equity, and how to bridge the gap in communities.

When the internet first came about, it was a concept unbeknownst to society. A new-wave tech concept that the rich and glamorous could afford. Today, institutions like workplaces and schools almost expect and require the internet as a tool for success. The lockdown in 2020 showed how many individuals depend on digital technology for modern-day tasks. The idea of digital equity goes beyond just having the internet, it also means the tools to access the internet along with the skill-set to operate the machinery. 

There’s room to grow in digital equity and ways that local governments can benefit their constituents towards a more inclusive society. According to an article in Nasdaq, “17 million people in the U.S. don’t have internet.” Certainly, there are contributing factors to the 7% of Americans who don't use the internet, like the cost of internet providers, the age of users, and the skill-set, as mentioned before.  Now that we’ve made it close to three years living in a pandemic world and growing dependence on the internet, digital equity is more evident than ever. 

Even before the pandemic, organizations and advocacy groups have existed that are committed to bridging the divide of digital equity, and local governments can play a key role in helping the cause. 

Man at local internet cafe

According to an article in Government Technology, “One key for local governments taking aim at last-mile digital equity, Geraghty also noted, is studying the digital inclusion ecosystem in their communities. This means finding areas in need, organizing groups already doing the work, and conveying what’s happening to higher levels of government.” 

Although local governments might not necessarily have the authority to fund digital equity programs, they can use data to support their case for state funding. Digital equity isn’t a quick-fix issue, it requires collaboration and understanding from the state, local, and community levels. Using technology can help underserved communities and pave the way towards economic development and progression if executed correctly.

There are local governments who’ve made significant strides in digital equity in their communities, take the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee for example.  “The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was ranked the best work-from-home city in 2021 by PC Mag due to its municipally-owned, citywide fiber network delivering gigabit speeds to the entire community.” A crucial part of their strategy was accommodating the stakeholders in the digital equity conversation, the local and federal government. 

“The network was built in 2010 by Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s electric utility, making Chattanooga the first US city to roll out a citywide gigabit network. The investment was supported by a $169 billion loan from the city and a $111 billion stimulus grant from the federal government.” (Jakimowicz)

There are more traditional ways of generating digital equity though, like community programs and partnerships with advocacy groups. “Other cities are working with community partners to distribute devices or partnering with their libraries to host digital literacy trainings.” (National League of Cities

One thing’s for sure- having a website isn’t the only factor in residents receiving information. Digital equity plays a large role in how residents can consume information and is key to growth for economic development. 

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