Internet access is no longer a luxury, so everyone’s got to get connected

The time is long past when the internet was just about wasting the day away on video games and social media.

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The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, under the U.S. Department of Commerce, awarded $2.6 million to St. Augustine College and $2.5 million to Dominican University.

The lack of connectivity in some low-income Black neighborhoods is being addressed on several fronts.

Anyone without a computer or internet access has been at a disadvantage for years, as we have been hurtling toward a more digital world.

Having subpar technology isn’t much better either, as many Americans learned at the height of the pandemic when school and many jobs moved completely online.

In our city, roughly 80% of households have internet access, according to the University of Chicago’s Internet Equity Initiative.

That’s the good news.

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The bad news is that there is nearly 40 percentage-point difference in connectivity levels between some neighborhoods. And like many inequities, the digital divide mostly affects low-income Black communities.

In Burnside, less than 58% of households have internet access. In West Englewood, that figure is less than 62%.

The five least connected communities are all on the South and West sides and are more than 90% Black on average, while the five most connected communities are less than 10% Black, according to City Hall. 

And 12% of Chicago households still don’t have computers at all.

This digital divide is being addressed — that’s also good news — and it ought to happen quickly to level the playing field for children and adults who already lack many other resources that are readily available to wealthier and middle-class residents.

U. of C. researchers are analyzing disparities in speed, performance and infrastructure — simply having a computer isn’t enough — and their analysis should help to influence the spending of $65 billion in federal funds to expand broadband access.

And on Monday, the Biden administration announced that 20 internet companies — including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — agreed to provide discounted service to low-income Americans. Tens of millions of households, including many in Chicago, will be eligible for free or low-cost service through the existing Affordable Connectivity Program.

In addition, Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week announced the creation of the Chicago Digital Equity Council to tackle technological disparities and increase internet access citywide.

The council piggy-backs off Chicago Connected, a program that launched in 2020 to ensure that Chicago Public Schools students had internet access for virtual learning. Lightfoot turned to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and some of the city’s biggest private foundations to secure initial funding for that program.

Opinion Newsletter

The time is long past when the internet was about wasting the day away on video games and social media.

Access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury.

The quicker connectivity is available to all, the better.

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