Seattle is just a few weeks away from unveiling a comprehensive action plan for how the city can help bridge its “digital divide” — the gulf between technology haves and have-nots that often exists along socioeconomic lines.
At a panel discussion at the National League of Cities’ congressional city conference in Washington, D.C., Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller pledged that the city will release the three-year plan on March 22, and outlined some of the programs his Department of Information Technology will likely highlight in the document.
Mattmiller said the city’s latest projections suggest that Seattle will add roughly 120,000 new residents between now and 2035, and many “are not participating in our digital economy,” underscoring the need for city workers to stress digital inclusion. Specifically, he highlighted a 2014 survey from his department that showed 76 percent of all city residents have access to smartphones, yet just 38 percent of those in “underrepresented” minority communities enjoy the same advantages.
“While we’re having success closing the digital divide, something is not working,” Mattmiller said.
Indeed, Mattmiller points out that Mayor Ed Murray hasn’t sat on his hands when it comes to closing this gap. Last January, he founded the Digital Equity Action Committee — a group of thinkers from government, the private sector and academia — to help guide the IT department’s digital inclusion efforts.
Since then, the committee has worked closely with the city to kick off several efforts that Mattmiller believes will be become fixtures in Seattle’s action plan.
The city has operated a “Technology Matching Fund” since 2013 to award grants as large as $30,000 to community organizations with ideas for closing the digital divide, and Mattmiller said the city handed out nearly $500,000 to 30 different organizations in 2015 alone.
The projects are often hyperlocal, and feature groups offering everything from coding classes for young students to laptop access for senior citizens, Mattmiller said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to have a significant impact,” Mattmiller said.
Mattmiller expects the grant program to continue and expand under the city’s new action plan, but he also pointed to the city’s efforts surrounding broadband as a key part of its digital inclusion strategy moving forward.
He noted that the city briefly explored the possibility of building a municipal broadband network in the mold of localities like Chattanooga, Tennessee.
However, Mattmiller said a department study revealed that constructing such a network would cost anywhere from $430 million to $660 million. Not only would city leaders likely view that price tag as “prohibitively expensive,” but Mattmiller said his staff estimated that the city would have to charge about $75 per month for the service.
“We just didn’t view that price as being equitable,” Mattmiller said.
But with 90,000 households still lacking Internet access, Mattmiller felt his department had to do something to address the issue. Accordingly, he worked with city telecommunications staffers to overhaul Seattle’s cable franchising rules “for the first time in over a decade.”
“We stipulated that anyone coming in, looking to build in Seattle must have 30 percent of their build in so-called ‘digital divide’ areas,” Mattmiller said.
Since that overhaul, Mattmiller noted that CenturyLink decided to expand to the area, which, in turn, prompted longtime provider Comcast to increase their available Internet speeds to help keep up.
“I know a lot of you are frustrated by your lack of broadband regulatory authority, but cable franchising authority is still a tool in your toolbox,” Mattmiller said.
Mattmiller added that he also hopes to find new ways to encourage cable providers to install gigabit-per-second service in lower income areas of the city at discounted rates, and include that sort of initiative in the action plan to codify its importance.
Though Mattmiller believes all of the city’s programs have helped shrink the digital divide a bit, he also feels the release of that plan will be pivotal to helping the city accelerate its efforts in the area.
“We’re still very much on this journey,” Mattmiller said.
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