Washington, DC is increasingly a tech hub, one of the East Coasts’ primary homes for the technology industry’s most innovative minds. Yet for many DC residents, even the most basic access to computers and the internet is not guaranteed.
Elizabeth Lindsey, Byte Back executive director, recently testified in favor of a pair of DC laws addressing the persistent challenge of the digital divide in DC. The DC City Council is now reviewing B22-0063, The WiFi Task Force Act of 2017, and B22-0160, Digital Literacy Council Establishment Act of 2017.
The first would create a task force to develop recommendations for a city-wide free WiFi network. The Digital Literacy Council Establishment Act will establish a standing body and associated fund, dispersed by the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, to advise the Mayor and Council on improving digital literacy in schools and workforce development programs.
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WiFi Task Force Act of 2017 & Digital Literacy Council Establishment Act of 2017
Testimony from Elizabeth Lindsey, Executive Director of Byte Back
July 10, 2017
My name is Elizabeth Lindsey, and I’m the Executive Director of Byte Back. Byte Back provides computer training, access to technology, and career services to underserved and unemployed adults in the Washington, DC area. We have worked with those on the wrong side of the digital divide for 20 years, and one of the greatest challenges to closing that gap is a continued lack of access to resources, such as the internet, and training. It is for that reason that I, speaking for Byte Back and those we serve, support the formation of the WiFi Task Force of 2017 and the establishment of a Digital Literacy Council.
Across this city, thousands of our neighbors wake up each morning without access to the digital tools that most of us here today take for granted. Reading the news on an app, paying a bill online, emailing a resume to a potential employer – for those without home internet access, these activities are not a simple part of a daily routine. They are obstacles to overcome.
Every day, Byte Back students remind me how valuable internet access is. One of our students would spend entire evenings in a Byte Back computer lab studying for his computer networking exam, leaving only when the office closed after tutoring hours. He didn’t have access to the internet at home. Despite this barrier, he passed his exam – but imagine what he could have accomplished if we broke that barrier down.
The internet access provided by Byte Back and libraries can’t replace the benefits of home internet or a public WiFi network. Another one of our students, who had lived for years without internet access, said, “In some ways it feels like you’re living in another world not having the internet. Libraries have time limits. How can you apply for a job in 30 minutes?” she said.
One of our beginner students, who used the internet for the first time at age 65 said, “I felt like I was being left behind. It seemed like everywhere I looked, on billboards, in magazines, recorded in the phone messages of different offices I was calling, people were telling me to go to some address called “WWW” for more information. I wanted to understand it, and to see if it would make my life better.”
When this DC resident finally gained internet access, she faced another challenge, though: being able to use it. That’s why the incorporation of a Digital Literacy Council in this proposal is so essential. After providing digital literacy training for 20 years, we can tell you that true digital equity will never be reached without skills training.
The challenges of the digital divide are not limited to the under- and un-employed. The consequences are equally troubling for our youth – a “homework gap” has emerged between those who have access to online learning tools and those who don’t. Generations of families are now caught in this downward spiral: those who most need these tools – low-income, vulnerable DC residents – don’t have them.
Byte Back and other community and government organizations work every day to end this spiral and narrow the digital divide. I recommend that the Task Force and Digital Literacy Council give special attention to the low-income, vulnerable communities that stand to benefit the most. Community organizations, schools, and libraries that work with these populations and are familiar with the challenges of digital inclusion should be regularly consulted.
Especially now, as the future of federal programs that expand broadband access and digital equity are uncertain, it is imperative that the DC Council take action for our own community. Supporting digital inclusion means expanding access to the modern economy and affirming that, in DC, a 21st century education is a right, not a privilege.
These bills are a positive first step toward that goal.