Allentown is looking to close the ‘digital divide’ by getting in the broadband business.
Nearly one in four Allentown residents lacks access to the internet at home, but the city is hoping to change that.
Allentown officials are proposing putting nearly $7 million of the city’s $57 million from the American Rescue Plan toward launching a city-provided high-speed broadband service that they hope will benefit Allentown’s poorest communities and attract investment to the city. The program will take several years to implement and potentially cost hundreds of millions but the city hopes federal and state grant dollars will cover much of the cost. .
The city is partnering with Allentown software company Iota Communications to conduct a feasibility study for the project, which Leonard Lightner, Allentown’s community and economic development director and deputy mayor, said will launch soon and take three to four months to complete. Lightner said the city’s plans for a broadband project are more than just providing internet — it’s about turning Allentown into a “smart city” as outlined in the city’s 10-year-plan.
The program would make high speed fiber optic broadband available throughout Allentown and at a subsidized price or free for low-income residents. Lightner says the program could eventually become a revenue source for the city through the income generated from those paying full price, as well as attract jobs and companies to Allentown.
Community activists see it as a way to bridge the digital divide in Allentown and to provide resources to low-income residents, including many of the Allentown School District’s 17,000 students who need Internet access to do school work.
“Wi-fi access is essentially access to another world,” said Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods Lehigh Valley which works with Allentown youth. “I’d almost argue it’s a basic human right at this point.”
Broadband for all in Allentown
Allentown wants to emulate a city-owned broadband program in Chattanooga, Tennessee that provides high-speed Wi-Fi access city-wide at an affordable price, Lightner said.
Chattanooga claims to be home to some of the world’s fastest internet speeds after implementing a fiber optic cable network over a decade ago. The city achieved this after receiving a $169 million bond issue and $111 million grant from the Obama administration in 2009. The city owns the broadband infrastructure.
That investment paid off. The price of broadband in Chattanooga has not increased, and the widespread availability of high-speed Wi-Fi has attracted jobs and companies to the city. `
Lightner has spoken with Chattanooga officials on how to implement a similar municipal broadband program in Allentown, which would bring the city closer to Vision 2030, a comprehensive 10-year plan for Allentown based on public input and passed by council in 2019.
The plan says that adapting Allentown into a “smart city” is a key goal, which it defines as having “digital infrastructure and technology” to enhance digital access and help the city prepare for technological advances. Bolstering broadband across Allentown is a cornerstone of that goal, according to the Vision 2030 plan.
Lightner said the city would need more than $7 million to get the project off the ground — Chattanooga’s cost was well into nine figures. But with President Biden’s infrastructure bill on the horizon, the city has new avenues to fund a city-wide broadband program. Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan would put $100 billion toward affordable, high-speed broadband for all.
Lightner said the city chose to partner with Iota Communications rather than other companies such as Service Electric for the study because Iota showed “a commitment to serving the underserved” when it comes to broadband. Iota will foot the bill for the assessment as part of their community outreach initiative, IotaCommUnity.
After the feasibility study, the city plans to launch a “micro-site” with information and updates about the project, including its cost. Lightner said it will take the city years to implement the project if it’s found to be feasible. Allentown has not yet decided which company they will contract to lay the infrastructure for fiber-optic broadband. Because Pennsylvania state law limits municipalities from providing broadband services, the city would have to rely on a public-private partnership to make it happen.
Kevin Easterling, CEO of the Black Heritage Alliance of the Lehigh Valley and member of the Allentown digital inclusion initiative. is a longtime advocate for increased broadband access in Allentown who is pleased to see the city invest in its digital infrastructure. But he said he’s unsure whether the city will make it a priority. He said he’s had several meetings with officials about city-wide affordable broadband since 2016 but has not seen progress.
“If the city of Allentown is really trying to step up … we can try and make this happen,” Easterling said. “It’s a necessity.”
Why it’s needed
Terrence DeFranco, CEO of Iota Communications, sees the project as a way to bridge the “digital divide” in Allentown that hinders poor residents’ quality of life.
“Where I’m sitting now at 6th and Hamilton versus a few blocks from here, the quality of life is very different,” DeFranco said. “Connectivity can help bridge that divide.”
Though the feasibility study has yet to begin, DeFranco said he believed that in Allentown, city-wide, affordable broadband is possible.
“Our inclination is based on what we know — we’re not totally going into this blind — but our inclination is yeah, it’s feasible,” DeFranco said.
Wi-Fi access has grown integral in every day life, advocates say. With the ubiquity of remote learning, telemedicine and job application portals, internet access means more than just the ability to get online.
“Folks need internet like they need electricity, like they need water,” Easterling said. “There’s not much you can do in a 21st century society without it.”
Easterling and other members of the initiative spent the pandemic helping 600 Lehigh Valley residents get discounted access to broadband through the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a Federal Communications Commission program launched during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wi-fi access is particularly important for Allentown’s children both Batts and Easterling said. Students who lack internet access at home are much more likely to see their grades suffer.
“What COVID taught us is students of color, students in the urban center, disproportionately do not have the tools that they needed to succeed,” Batts said.
Ensuring they have access to the internet is one way to change that, he said.
When the pandemic began, the Allentown School District had to pivot to remote learning for more than 16,000 students. With so many students lacking access to the internet at home, that was a challenge..
School board president Nancy Wilt said neighboring districts were able to send children home with laptops or iPads — but Allentown did not have enough laptops to send home with every child.
“We had to scramble not only to buy laptops … but we had to figure out a way to get Wi-Fi access to those devices so those students could learn from home,” she said.
Wilt said students who live in Center City are most likely to lack internet access.
The district secured an $800,000 grant from the state to set up “hotspots” for students who lacked Wi-Fi at home. Even though those hotspots helped, the district and its students would greatly benefit from a city-wide broadband program, Wilt said.
For a district that continuously struggles financially, a city initiative would help keep costs down.
“If there’s a way our students can use broadband provided by city, it’s not only easier for them because it’s reliable Wi-fi as opposed to hotspots that may or may not work … for us, it would have a positive fiscal impact, obviously,” she said.
By Lindsay Weber The Morning Call