More than half the households in five neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg lacked connections to high-speed broadband internet as recently as 2019.
That puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to education, employment and healthcare, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from City Health Dashboard.
A coalition of more than two dozen local business, government and non-profit organizations is working to change that. The Digital Inclusion Working Group wants to ensure that everyone has access to online resources, as well as the training, tools and support required to use that access in a meaningful way.
“One of my dreams, and Covid proved it, is that internet is a utility like water, that everybody should have,” said Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District and co-lead of the Digital Inclusion Working Group. “How we get to that point and make it affordable is a challenge.”
There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but the Digital Inclusion Working Group, co-led by Barlow and Veatrice Farrell, executive director of Deuces Live, has several ideas. One of them is a center to assist people in signing up for a new federal program that provides financial help to households struggling to afford internet service during the pandemic. The center is expected to launch soon.
The group’s work has strong support from City Council Vice Chair Gina Driscoll.
“Closing the digital gap is key to creating equitable access to information, learning, and jobs,” Driscoll said. “This is the type of collaboration we need to ensure that all families have the equipment and service to connect to and thrive in our city.”
Reliable, high-speed internet improves access to education and employment opportunities and is associated with increased economic development, higher home values and higher educational outcomes at both the grade school and high school levels, according to City Health Dashboard, a data tracking site backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A high-speed connection also enables people to access healthcare resources, such as finding a local doctor or connecting to care remotely.
As a whole, St. Petersburg is above average for high-speed internet connections. Citywide, 74.5 percent of households had high-speed internet connections in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, compared to the average of 72.4 percent across some 750 cities.
But there are big disparities throughout St. Pete.
Between 89 and 94 percent of the households in Old Northeast, Snell Isle, Shore Acres and Venetian Isles had high-speed internet connections, the Dashboard data showed.
In contrast, in Childs Park, fewer than one-third of households – or 32.8 percent – had high-speed internet connections.
In Thirteenth Street Heights, 38.7 percent of homes had high-speed internet.
In the Pine Acres neighborhood, 39.1 percent of homes had high-speed internet.
In Highland Oaks and in Harbordale, internet connectivity was slightly over 44 percent.
In rural areas, lack of physical infrastructure is often the biggest barrier to high-speed internet connections, the Dashboard said. But in urban areas, lack of access is most frequently due to the cost of subscription, low digital literacy or lack of in-home computing equipment.
“We have no lack of wires in the ground here in St. Pete. We have three [internet] carriers. We have places you can go. It’s the affordability option,” Barlow said.
That’s why she is enthusiastic about the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. It’s a $3.2 billion federal initiative to provide qualifying households discounts on their internet service bills and an opportunity to receive a discount on a computer or tablet.
The program launched in mid-May, and by June 7 more than 2.3 million households nationally were enrolled and more than 100 broadband providers agreed to take part in the program. That includes Spectrum, the dominant provider in St. Petersburg, as well as Frontier and WOW!, according to the FCC.
The Digital Inclusion Working Group got grant funding from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and from the Pinellas Community Foundation to market the program locally.
“We’re going to create a grassroots marketing campaign with a street team to get the word out,” Barlow said. In addition, “We want to build a customized ‘how-to’ that we can share with service organizations around the community that might help their own customers or clients do this. You can’t apply on behalf of someone but you can be a pair of hands to assist them.”
The Digital Inclusion Working Group was formed in early 2020, before the pandemic hit. In addition to internet access, the initiative has other areas of concentration:
Equipment. That means a computer or tablet, Barlow said. “Sometimes people will say I’ve got smart phones but it’s impossible to do homework on a smart phone or to apply for job on a smart phone,” she said.
Technical training. “When we say technical training, not necessarily to be a programmer, but how do you use Microsoft Office, how do you use Zoom, how do you have an email address if you’ve never had one?” she said.
Technical support. “I get my technical support from my friends and family,” Barlow said. “If you don’t have that built-in network who do you go to?”
Before Covid hit, the group focused on training, but once the pandemic was in force, it pivoted.
“With Covid, we realized training wasn’t going to happen. All the places that offered training like the libraries were shutting down. The most important things at that moment were computers and internet access,” Barlow said.
The group partnered with eSmart Recycling on Gadgets for Good, a program to collect used electronics and distribute refurbished devices to community organizations. It is working with Community Tech House, a nonprofit founded by Lynn Harrell Johnson. Johnson provides the technical training individuals need.
“One phenomenon we saw during Covid, when kids were still remote, was that parents might be essential workers and had to go to work, so kids stayed with older family members such as a grandparent. The need for our seniors to be internet savvy became important,” she said. “We also had seniors who became extremely isolated. Their circles of church and community were lost. We spent quite a bit of time early on helping seniors through the Community Tech House. And we partnered with Pinellas County Schools, which had scaled to work the student side, so we tried to fill gaps around that.”
Many people in St. Petersburg rely on libraries for internet access. When libraries closed, some people tried to get internet signal just outside the library building. The results weren’t great; their WiFi networks were not designed for that, Barlow said.
“That’s something we’ve talked about, how do we create spaces outside. So we worked with the city to enable WiFi in the Tangerine Plaza parking lot. We also worked with a church in Childs Park to enable WiFi in their parking lot,” she said.
The Digital Inclusion Working Group also is looking at models around the country where affordable housing includes internet service as part of the rent.
To learn more about Digital Inclusion St. Pete, click here.
Note: The St. Petersburg Group is a member of the Digital Inclusion Working Group. Joe Hamilton, publisher of St. Pete Catalyst, is co-founder and a partner in the St. Petersburg Group.