Technology and Internet Access Are Essential Needs Under COVID-19 Conditions
Arriving to work one day at Tacoma’s Peace Community Center, Development Director, Lianna Shepherd met a mother in desperate need of reliable internet bandwidth in order to work from home, “She’s worked for Delta Airlines for years, and now suddenly has to perform her customer service duties from home. The woman says, ‘I don’t think these people are based in reality. I have five kids at home. What do they think I’m going to accomplish here?”
“Everyone in the house will now have to negotiate for bandwidth. No one conceptualized the negotiation of bandwidth in the American household, but that’s what it boils down to – who can connect to the outside world now? Is it the breadwinner or the children? That is a horrible decision to have to make, and a conversation to have. It’s different from pure economics. Moms and dads all over the world will say, ‘if it comes down to the last can in the house, you get it, but if it comes down to my ability to provide cans in that house – now we’ve got a whole new problem’.”
“Because high-speed internet is necessary to employment opportunities, education, and identifying social resources, areas in which broadband is unaffordable or unreliable are at a distinct disadvantage.”
Located in the Hilltop neighborhood, Peace Community Center supports and encourages historically underrepresented college youth to cultivate their academic and leadership talents, so they gain full access to educational opportunities and reach their full potential. To fill the technology gap in their community, Peace Community Center partnered with Tacoma Public Library to provide mobile hotspots. They also offer a few laptops and tablets. However, they are not the only organization witnessing deficits in essential technology and internet access under the conditions of COVID-19.
To date, the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED fund has received over $1 million in funding requests from service providers across the county seeking additional connectivity and technology access support to ensure individuals and families can connect to the services that support them in living and thriving.
PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED funding recipients Arthritis Foundation, Key Peninsula Fire Department, Rainbow Center, and Peace Community Center shared their experience of the various technology access needs being surfaced and supported in our community.
Michal W. Wiesbrock, Associate Executive Director, “Our constituents are feeling the strain, fear, and anxiety of the pandemic and the isolation of the pandemic is wearing on patients and their loved ones. The lack of reliable internet access is an added barrier to their efforts to stay connected with others in the arthritis community, their healthcare providers who are utilizing telemedicine, and the Foundation’s online resources.
“We created a dedicated page on our website (www.arthritis.org/care-connect) to provide the latest news and updates to the arthritis community. Our one-of-a-kind podcasts and education seminars are saved online so that those who cannot participate in the live discussions due to internet connection issues can access them later.
“The Arthritis Foundation’s Live Yes! Connect peer-led support group provides connections, education, and empowerment to adults living with arthritis, rheumatic diseases, and parents/guardians of children living with arthritis.”
Key Peninsula Fire Department
Anne Nesbit, Fire Prevention Specialist/PIO, “COVID-19 has put a lot of stress on our households on the Key Peninsula. Not only has it had its social impacts, but it has highlighted the technological challenges that we are experiencing significantly. Many are still working from home and now with confirmation of online schools, connectivity is an issue that must be addressed.
It’s time to consider high-speed broadband as a utility, vital to everyone’s success.
“The Pierce County Fire Protection District recently invested substantially to upgrade our internet capacity, which is in its final phase of installation and hardware testing. Once completed, we should be able to enhance our offering to share the District connection within the community. We are working to secure the additional WIFI transmission equipment and make sure we develop and deploy a simple, but safe, log on procedure for community members that may want to access our system.
“This connectivity resource is an effort on the part of the Department, to fill the connectivity gap on the Key. We are hopeful that we can provide access in a safe space to those who do not have it. Be it for work, or for school, or even for the day to Google. Key Peninsula Fire wants to be a community partner that can ease some of the daily stress that has occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Troy Christensen, Executive Director, “Within the first weeks of the pandemic, we realized that we weren’t hearing back from some of our regular older clients, and that those who lacked adequate technology could not reach us. We have learned that outreach is essential – especially if someone has gone silent.
“We have mitigated this to some degree by hiring an outreach specialist who is reaching out to those who have concerns. We are working through our list of community members who may be experiencing isolation. As we reach out, we discover that they lack the technology needed to connect, so we find new ways to communicate with them. We have a few devices, such as laptops and tablets, that we can loan to community members, but the demand is much higher than our capacity to loan.”
Technology As A Utility To Success
Technology and internet access were issues for Pierce County before COVID-19. In 2019, the Pierce County Council requested evaluation of Broadband Access and Speed. A key conclusion from that was, “Because high-speed internet is necessary to employment opportunities, education, and identifying social resources, areas in which broadband is unaffordable or unreliable are at a distinct disadvantage.”
Georgia Lomax, Executive Director of the Pierce County Library System and PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Funding Committee member, highlighted how COVID-19 made lack of access even more of a disadvantage, “The digital divide has existed for a long time and libraries have long been key players in providing equitable access to technology. As with so many things, the coronavirus has exposed the extent and impact of this digital divide to everyone and intensified the realities of what it means to be unconnected in our highly connected world. Especially for our most vulnerable residents.
“As a member of the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Funding Committee, I’m seeing many organizations doing their best to help fill the critical need for access to the Internet and to computers, even when they themselves are struggling with related issues for their own staff and for providing their own service.
“When you don’t give people the tools they need to stay connected, you have officially created two categories – those who get educated, and those who don’t…”
“We need to bring everyone’s concern and support together in a coordinated way to reach as many people in need as possible, and to ensure that the support they are getting is adequate. That means thinking about solving the problem through work at a strategic, coordinated community and infrastructure level. It’s time to consider high-speed broadband like a utility, vital to everyone’s success. Access is not available in many areas of the county and infrastructure is needed to make it available, as well as partnerships among schools, libraries, agencies, and business.”
While the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Fund has been able to provide funding for many nonprofits, Lianna Shepherd of Peace Community Center shared what she sees as the implications of not having adequate and equitable connectivity and technology access for all, “when you don’t give people the tools they need to stay connected, this is not a futuristic issue, you have officially created two categories – those who get educated, and those who don’t. You don’t get to pretend there is a middle ground anymore – it’s one or the other. If we’re okay with being a society where some of the people get educated and some people don’t then you’re already susceptible to your worst-case society.”
Pierce County Broadband Access and Speed (2019 Evaluation)
Tacoma’s 2018 Equity Index Home Internet Access Data
Washington State Broadband Access and Speed Survey
‘CARES Act to provide free internet to families with kids so they can access classes’ (Tacoma News Tribune October 3, 2020)