A year later, what progress has the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition made?

The group made up of a dozen-plus nonprofits and institutional partners has been listening to residents’ feedback and making plans to gather more data. Next up: a five-year plan to close the digital divide.

In April 2022, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission reported that residents in Allegheny County have both some of the highest internet speeds in the region and areas with inadequate internet speeds or few service options.

In response, this time last year, the newly minted Gainey administration announced a renewed commitment to helping Pittsburgh close the digital divide by 2027.

To do this, Mayor Ed Gainey and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald explained while standing in front of the City-County Building, a coalition of a dozen-plus nonprofits, institutional partners and technologists had been assembled to create a five-year plan to ensure that connectivity wasn’t something that only the most well-off Pittsburghers can afford.

That group’s name: the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition.

“Today we break down silos and commit to a partnership to end the digital divide in our region by 2027,” Gainey said during a press event launching the initiative last September. “Our transformation to an eds and meds economy, one that drives technological advances in robotics and medical engineering, will not leave anyone behind.”

In the year since this declaration, what progress has been made by the coalition?

Heidi Norman, the director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance who was a part of the coalition’s announcement, referred to Jennifer Blatz, program director of coalition member Greater Pittsburgh Digital Inclusion Alliance. According to Blatz, the makeup of the coalition hasn’t changed. However, progress on the group’s stated goal to develop a five-year plan to close the digital divide by Q2 2023 is delayed. Blatz said so far, the group has mainly collected feedback from residents on their digital needs, which will then inform the creation of that plan.

“Over the summer, we started doing community feedback sessions, listening sessions, to essentially solicit more specific needs from community members that were assembled,” Blatz said.

What coalition members have been hearing from session attendees, she said, is that affordability is a pressing issue for Allegheny County residents. They have also heard concerns about accessibility of devices and skills for older adults — concerns shared by residents across Pennsylvania. (These concerns are also addressed by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority’s new five-year action plan released earlier this month to direct the allocation of the state’s federal Broadband Equity Access and Deployment funds.)

Yet she said it’s helpful that while the coalition finalizes its recommendations, there are programs that already exist to fill in the gaps.

“Fortunately in Allegheny County, we do have a number of internet service providers,” Blatz said. “But the cost associated with high-speed internet service is still just out of reach for a lot of households.”

In addition to listening, the coalition has started writing the five-year plan. Since it’s a work in progress, Blatz said many facets of the plan can’t be shared with the public yet. Still, she did share that the coalition is currently trying to obtain more data to inform the decisions the mayor and county executive make with regard to digital equity.

“Theoretically, people are taking advantage of ACP [Affordable Connectivity Program] and more households are getting connected,” Blatz said, referring to the $14.2 billion federal benefits program that provides a $30 subsidy for internet service to eligible families. “But we want to verify that. So we are pursuing some avenues to hopefully secure funding to update that data.”

For the time being, the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Commission remains in a state of listening, data gathering and discussing, but ultimately, Blatz feels they’re on track for a productive future.

“It’s exciting, we’re very happy with the participation of all of the partners and our progress,” she said. “2024 is going to be a very big year for digital equity and inclusion for all of us.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.

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