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To Bridge Louisville's Digital Divide, Internet Alone Isn't Enough

Lisa Thomas computer and internet access

Lisa Thomas has been trying to get her high school diploma for decades. Now, with a desktop computer and wired internet access in her home for the first time, she may achieve her goal.

It's a step up from how she did her online schoolwork before.

"I was doing the schoolwork and I was doing it on my phone. My phone [would] crash. I was just trying to use what I had in front of me so you know, there it was," she said.

For 46-year-old Thomas, a McDonald's cook and single parent of five kids, getting connected at home has allowed her to continue pursuing her degree. Her oldest son, who just started college at Spalding University, also gets to use the technology.

Louisville has a bigger aim: connecting hundreds of low-income residents with both home computers and internet access. In mid-2017, the city introduced a digital inclusion plan outlining its goals.

Thomas was doing reading assignments and taking tests on a palm-sized device with a data plan. When she heard the Louisville Metro Housing Authority was giving out refurbished computers for free, she asked for one.

Then about a month ago, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place: Thomas signed up for low-cost broadband through AT&T for $10 a month after hearing about it from a neighbor. Her other option could have cost 15 times as much — a rate she said she couldn't afford.

Metro Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology Grace Simrall said there is a national debate over whether a smartphone with a data plan is sufficient. Her department's standard is wired internet access and a desktop or laptop computer.

"Often times cell phone plans have data caps and that limits your amount of being able to do something," Simrall said. "Families often times are sharing data plans, so that limits the ability for children to use it for homework and adults to use it for job searching."

In Louisville, about three-quarters of households have a laptop, desktop or smartphone, according to Census data. But about 11 percent have only a cellular data plan, and about 17 percent have no internet service at all. For the city's poorest households, the rate of those not connected to the internet jumps to more than 40 percent.

Home access to internet, with the right hardware, is essential for people of all ages, Simrall said. Adults need it to find jobs. And students need it more and more, especially since Louisville instituted its "digital backpack" program this year.

Last fiscal year, Louisville Metro got about 420 low-income residents onto low-cost broadband plans by educating people about their options, a bit short of its goal of 500. Simrall said these low-cost internet plans are a good resource, even though they come with slower download speeds.

But Angelique Johnson, an electrical engineer and the digital inclusion fellow at 1804, a Louisville entrepreneurship center, said the city needs to work toward providing every resident with affordable high-speed options, too.

"There’s got to be a way to get that high speed into residential areas, especially in areas that are low-income or they’ve been redlined," she said. "Because not every neighborhood that is deemed low-income, everybody in there is low-income, it’s just that, by and large, they’ve been overlooked."

She said internet access is essential for anyone trying to improve their station in life, whether by starting a business or getting an education. But that access is most useful when it’s fast, especially because corporations like Google and Microsoft optimize their products for speed.

"They’re not designing technology and hardware to be used with these slow, archaic speeds," Johnson said.

There is an opportunity for Louisville to take inspiration from groups in cities like Detroit and New York that have made efforts to spread free or low-cost wireless internet to residents. Internet service providers or other entities could tap into the municipal fiber lines Louisville is in the process of laying as one way to increase access, Johnson said.

She said getting more people connected would be good for the city.

"That individual being able to get a high-paying job, being able to get a digital skill set that makes them thrive in society, which then leads to the greater good of everybody financially," Johnson said.

Lisa Thomas said her new computer and internet access made the difference between another incomplete attempt at her high school diploma and, now, an opportunity to finally earn it. She said getting those at home was "a big relief."

"I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was just going to give up and say, it is what it is. Just move on," she said.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.