Columbus Foundation Announces Fund to Address Broadband Access
Between more time spent at home and school, and work and methods of entertainment increasingly taking place online, the coronavirus pandemic has seen a renewed interest in the state of internet access in both urban and rural communities.
With several Central Ohio school districts unveiling plans for fully remote or hybrid education models in the fall, The Columbus Foundation has announced the Central Ohio Digital Divide Fund to address the Broadband Gap experienced by many local families.
This comes after a report commissioned by the Foundation and done by civil infrastructure research and planning company AECOM released last month. The report found a correlation between areas with a lack of internet access, Columbus City Schools online learning access, and high-poverty areas determined by American Community Survey datasets, and provided a range of short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions.
The Central Ohio Digital Divide Fund is seeded with $500,000 and was created as a branch of the Emergency Response Fund, launched in March to address community needs as a result of COVID-19.
Support from the digital divide fund will provide opportunities to expand the research regarding online access challenges and implement ideas included in the AECOM report. The fund will also address the interests of individual and corporate funders — to be announced — who will now have a way to co-invest in opportunities to improve online education access for students, the Foundation says.
“We have taken a positive first step in answering some important questions through the initial report,” said Douglas Kridler, president and CEO of The Columbus Foundation. “Now, as we move forward as a community, we need to invest in ideas that will help address mid- and long-term solutions for the challenges that are holding some students and families back.”
The initial AECOM report concluded that the city’s broadband gap is not due to a lack of infrastructure, as there is at least one high-speed internet provider and adequate broadband infrastructure for service in even the lowest-income neighborhoods.
The report recommended solutions to the disadvantages some CCS students experienced this past spring. Short-term solutions included programs and subsidies implemented by service providers and charitable organizations, while free Wi-Fi access points was provided as a medium-term solution, but was not suggested due to the need for students and families to travel to hotspots.
Long-term, the report suggested public-private partnerships, new technologies such as 5G wireless networks and utility co-op broadband networks.
AECOM will soon further broaden its research to all of Franklin County. Meanwhile, Columbus City Schools and MORPC have developed plans to address the short-term need to provide students with remote learning access this fall, seeking out CARES Act resources from the City of Columbus to provide new computers, refurbished devices and affordable internet plans to families.
On Thursday, July 23, Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted announced $50 million from federal CARES Act state funding will be set aside to provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices to students, pending Controlling Board approval.
One of those efforts comes from Partners Achieving Community Transformation or PACT, which has launched a pilot program will look at leveraging internet access points on the Near East Side to transmit wireless internet across the neighborhood.
“While broadband infrastructure is widely available in Columbus and Franklin County, more than half of Near East Side community residents, including about 75 percent of the children, live in poverty, making this access financially unattainable,” said Autumn Glover, president of PACT. “PACT is partnering with The Columbus Foundation to get Near East Side residents online so they have access to jobs, healthcare, education, and social benefit. In 2020, the digital divide is an issue of racial equity that PACT hopes to close by ensuring that by 2025 every household has access to broadband, devices, and increased digital literacy to utilize internet platforms and other tools that enhance their quality of life.”
For more information, visit columbusfoundation.org.