Free DC Wi-Fi: Not Just a Digital Inclusion Dream


City Council Wifi 1 crop

Elizabeth Lindsey, executive director of Byte Back, prepares to testify in support of District-wide free public Wi-Fi.

Imagine Wi-Fi in the air, running free through all the streets and public areas of the District of Columbia.

Cities like New York and Boston are already connected, and DC Council member Vincent Orange, an at-large Democrat, doesn’t want DC to be left behind.

More than a year ago, President Barack Obama said, “Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.” Council member Orange echoed this statement as his motivation for encouraging the city to explore Wi-Fi.

Byte Back is one of many supporters of free municipal Wi-Fi in DC, and was one of many to deliver testimony during a DC City Council hearing to encourage the creation of a task force that would explore the possibilities of free public Wi-Fi.

Implementing free public Wi-Fi “will be a huge step toward leveling the playing field,” Elizabeth Lindsey, executive director of Byte Back, said in her testimony to the Council.

The divide is felt by many – from children who experience a homework divide to adults who struggle to apply for jobs online. “A municipal network would help bridge the gap,” Orange said, “Now is the time.”

Many others present at the hearing echoed Orange’s and Lindsey’s comments on the current digital divide in DC and the need for fast internet to be broadly available to the public.

In DC, 73% of households have neither a wireless nor a wire line connection to the internet, said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “The District has a lot to gain here,” he concluded.

Currently, many who don’t have home internet access go to the DC Public Library to use one of their 800 free public terminals. “For some, it’s their only access,” said Nicholas Kerelchuk, technology and innovation manager at DC Public Library, a Byte Back partner. He went on to stress the importance of training, saying, “Education and access must go hand-in-hand.” This is a step that Byte Back agrees cannot be ignored.

Byte Back’s hope is that access to internet is spread even wider with this and other initiatives. After all, “you cannot connect to the American dream without connecting to the internet,” said Chike Aguh, executive director of EveryoneOn, a Byte Back partner.


Watch the full hearing >>


Read Elizabeth Lindsey’s full testimony >>

WiFi Task Force Act of 2016
Testimony from Elizabeth Lindsey, Executive Director of Byte Back
April 27, 2016

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 adults in Washington, DC. We have been working to close the digital divide for 18 years, and we’ve seen thousands of our students struggle because of lack of resources, including internet.

I’d like you to imagine waking up this morning without being able to check your email from home. Now imagine that you’re searching for a job and trying to apply for employment without internet access.

Many of us cannot imagine this scenario, but for thousands of people right here in the District, this is a daily reality.

One of our students stays in a Byte Back computer lab until the last tutoring session ends at 8 p.m. and our doors close. He’s stays there studying for a computer networking exam, taking advantage of something he doesn’t have at home – internet.

Another one of our IT certification students, who was without internet for years, 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 added.

The burden of cost on these individuals has caused the digital divide to spread contagiously to so many areas. Children (and adults like our students) experience a “homework gap,” as educational opportunities halt at the school door, where internet signals stop. Adults who face underemployment and unemployment don’t have access to the most useful tool when searching for a job – a computer with internet access.

Many of those who would benefit most from free Wi-Fi are the most underserved, vulnerable residents in the District. That’s why I highly recommend that, as you develop this Task Force, you include the input of community organizations, schools, and libraries who work with these populations and in digital inclusion efforts.

Finding a way to offer free internet to the people of the District is an investment that will pay off – those who gain access to online educational tools will learn more, and people who are applying for jobs will be able to do so anytime from their homes.

Making internet a right, not a privilege, for everyone in DC will be a huge step toward leveling the playing field, a step that we strongly urge the Council to take.


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