U.S. cities home in on tech have-nots - from immigrants to seniors

People smile as they are gathered around a tablet

A family enrolled in the Chicago Connected program uses a tablet. Handout photo by City of Chicago/Chicago Connected.

What’s the context?

From Chicago to San Antonio, the COVID pandemic has spurred city efforts to prioritize digital equity across the United States.

  • Pandemic school closures highlighted U.S. digital divide
  • Cities strive to boost internet access among all ages
  • Low-income families, seniors most at risk from tech gap 

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON - When COVID-19 first closed her children's schools in Chicago, it was a painful wake-up call for mother-of-five Karina Aguilar. Not only did the family have just one computer for remote classes - she didn't know how to use it. 

"When they started talking about remote learning, it was very hard for many families, especially immigrants with various levels of language skills and digital literacy – including me," Aguilar, 47, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Until that point, she had only ever used a mobile phone to access the internet, and did not know how to attach a document to an email – much less get connected for online doctor's appointments for her son with special needs.

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But two years on, thanks partly to a city program aimed at boosting digital inclusion, Aguilar has new skills and a new career - working with a local nonprofit to help other people get connected. 

The city's Chicago Connected program offers free laptops, computers and Wi-Fi hotspots as well as classes for people with varying levels of knowledge. 

"I started from zero - how to turn on the computer," said Aguilar, whose experience underscores a major new digital equity push in cities across the United States that is about to receive an unprecedented funding boost. 

A new federal program this year offers steep discounts on internet service, and the government is preparing to put $65 billion into expanding broadband access, including more than $42 billion to "close the availability gap." 

For officials in Chicago and beyond, the pandemic threw that gap into stark relief. 

"In the spring of 2020, we learned that one in five public school students didn't have internet at home," said Devon Braunstein, digital inclusion policy fellow with the Chicago mayor's office. 

That prompted the launch of Chicago Connected - and also led to a recognition of the impact of digital inequality among residents of all ages. 

"It wasn't just the kids at home who needed internet, but other members of the household," Braunstein said. 

Now, the city is creating a Digital Equity Council is holding neighborhood-level meetings to plan further action. 

Those meetings are finding significant need, but also strong interest in learning, said Dominique Smith, 32, a classroom assistant who is on the council, along with Aguilar. 

"The biggest surprise has been the willingness of the older generations to learn," Smith said.  

"They're interested and want to learn how to use devices, and be able to do things from home and not have to travel to get their needs met." 

'Grandma and grandpa'

The pandemic made the internet even more central to everyday life for Americans, with 90% saying being online was important or even essential, the Pew Research Center found in September. 

Yet the survey also found nearly half of low-income users were worried about their internet bills, and more than a quarter of all adults usually needed help using their devices. 

For years, small organizations such as public libraries and senior centers have worked to bridge the digital gap, but "prior to the pandemic, there was no recognition that this work was essential," said Angela Siefer, executive director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance. 

Over the past two years, recognition of that gap grew, particularly in cities, Siefer said. 

In Charlotte, North Carolina, officials used the pandemic to adopt a plan to make the surrounding county the most digitally equitable in the country within the next five years. 

A laptop screen is pictured showing a slide

Chicago residents take part in a meeting of the new Digital Equity Council in April 2022. Handout photo by City of Chicago/Patrick L. Pyszka

Chicago residents take part in a meeting of the new Digital Equity Council in April 2022. Handout photo by City of Chicago/Patrick L. Pyszka

"We thought, let's think about (responding) in an emergency context ... but also how do we capitalize on this moment to set ourselves up for the future?" said Bruce Clark, executive director of the new Center for Digital Equity, a public-private initiative at Queens University of Charlotte. 

In Charlotte as in other cities, the impetus of online learning prompted recognition of broader needs. 

"There's the school system, but there's also uncle and auntie, grandma and grandpa – all of these constituencies are impacted by COVID and the digital divide," Clark said. 

A major part of the effort thus far has a goal of signing up 7,500 residents this year for low-cost broadband, in addition to supplying devices, digital literacy efforts and technical support, he said. 

San Antonio, Texas, had just begun to focus on digital equity when the pandemic hit, but within months officials had made the issue one of five priorities for pandemic recovery, said Brian C. Dillard, the city's chief innovation officer. 

More than 38% of the city lacks internet access, and the schools lost contact with nearly that proportion of students in the switch to remote classes, he said. 

"We wanted to commit to solving that problem, but also wanted to make sure we don't face that problem in the future." 

San Antonio is now preparing to build a series of 60-foot (18-meter) telecommunications towers to bring internet to students in two school districts by August, and has pledged that 100% of the population will have access to affordable service.  

"It wouldn't be acceptable for anyone to be living here without water supply or electricity, and it shouldn't be acceptable for this utility," Dillard said. 

Saving lives

Nonprofits were a backbone of digital inclusion efforts for years and continued to play a major role amid the pandemic, often coming together or innovating on the fly.

A man sat a desk speaks to someone using a tablet

William speaks with an acquaintance while learning to use a tablet through a program of the San Francisco Community Tech Network in May 2021. Handout photo by Stephanie Secrest Photography.

William speaks with an acquaintance while learning to use a tablet through a program of the San Francisco Community Tech Network in May 2021. Handout photo by Stephanie Secrest Photography.

In the Silicon Valley city of San Jose, California, youths last year started to collect and refurbish old devices for those in need. 

The idea came to teenager Ayush Agarwal when he thought back to food drives during which residents had also offered old electronics. 

"When the pandemic hit and I saw peers not be able to get online ... I remembered this experience," said Agarwal, now 17. 

Since early 2021, his ClosingTheDivide nonprofit has donated 889 devices, while expanding to more than a dozen states and internationally. 

Other groups quickly rejiggered longstanding strategies. 

"It's really hard to show someone how to use a tablet when you can't sit next to them," said Kami Griffiths, executive director of the Community Tech Network in San Francisco. 

But a new initiative to help isolated seniors has now seen nearly 900 people get a tablet or help in signing up for internet access – as well as printed booklets and lessons by phone. 

"They were so lonely and didn't know where to turn," said Griffiths. 

"Now they can do things that previously they only saw on movies and television," she said, pointing to the ability to talk to relatives abroad, order medication and access other life-changing services. 

"We've had several people say we saved their lives."

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