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The pandemic uncovered south Phoenix's digital divide. Here's how the city wants to forge a permanent fix

Megan Taros
Arizona Republic
Imelda Hartley sits with her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) as they do their schoolwork online from the kitchen table in Phoenix on Nov 19, 2020.

All seven of Imelda Hartley’s children wound up in her apartment in a public housing complex near downtown Phoenix when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools.

They shared a basic internet connection because wiring in the home was so old it could not accommodate higher-speed internet. That also limited her options to one provider.

Hartley and her children are among the many Phoenix residents with inadequate internet connections. Hartley already had taken on a second job when her ex-husband left and when the pandemic hit, it forced her to temporarily close her Happy Tamale catering business. It made the $65 a month she pays for internet more daunting. 

In April, the Phoenix City Council began an initiative to bring laptops to children in public housing to help them participate in distance learning. That’s how councilmembers first learned that many in public housing didn’t have an internet connection.

The council responded by providing Wi-Fi hotspots through tablets with built-in connectivity for these families for two years and putting $2 million in CARES Act money toward the issue. The Hartley family was among the beneficiaries, which helps as their schooling continues remotely via computer.  

The discovery that many lacked internet connections opened a larger discussion about the digital divide in Phoenix, and how to shore it up for good, rather than just in the COVID-19 crisis. 

“This is a social issue that we need to take on and we need to plan for,” said Councilmember Carlos Garcia, who represents District 8, which includes south Phoenix. “We didn’t prepare for this. It came about as we saw people hurting.”

Who is affected by Phoenix’s digital divide?

Nearly 20% of Phoenix households didn’t have any broadband internet between 2014 and 2018, which is about the national average, according to the United States Census Bureau. 

Compared with the rest of Arizona, Phoenix is well connected to stable internet with about 97% of residents having access to a broadband connection — though that doesn’t mean as many residents actually have one, according to Broadband Now, a nonprofit that tracks broadband access nationwide.

But in south Phoenix, the potential to access broadband dips to about 95% and the number of people who rely exclusively on mobile internet is high.

That makes the digital divide in Phoenix, and most other U.S. cities, more of a financial gap than an infrastructure gap.

The U.S. has some of the highest monthly internet rates compared with similarly developed countries, mostly due to a lack of competition among providers, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

But the conversation on affordability is often sidelined, according to Karen Mossberger, director of the school of public affairs at Arizona State University who studies digital inequality.

“There’s been a lot of talk about smart cities and 5G. These solutions with really fast internet make possible a lot of innovation,” Mossberger said. “A lot of the conversation in cities has been about innovative broadband and what gets obscured in this debate is that cities may have broadband, but the people can’t afford it or have inadequate connections.”

This service gap disproportionately impacts communities of color and those living in poverty. A little more than a quarter of households in some census tracts in south Phoenix, which is home to some of the largest Black and Latino populations in Phoenix as well as some of its poorest communities, have any kind of a wired internet connection, meaning the majority of people rely on their smartphones.

Latino and Black Americans depend the most on mobile-only internet, according to Pew Research Center. About 10% of white smartphone owners are “smartphone dependent,” while 23% of Latinos and 19% of Black Americans fall into this category.

Most solutions to this problem nationwide are temporary, and relief programs offered by providers are inadequate, Mossberger said.

Users usually can’t apply for assistance programs with internet providers without their accounts being shut off for a certain amount of time, she said. And the speed of internet offered in low-cost plans, like the Lifeline program in Arizona, can’t run programs that have become synonymous with the pandemic, like Zoom. 

“The $9.25-a-month Lifeline plan runs out very fast. You couldn’t use that to do Zoom,” Mossberger said. “A lot of these low-cost plans don’t have enough data for streaming or to do remote learning.”

A temporary bridge for schools

Before the pandemic, Ashley Castro, an eighth-grader in the Roosevelt School District in south Phoenix, would stay after school to finish assignments that required an internet connection to complete because she had no Wi-Fi at home.

Her mother took on more shifts at the factory where she works to continue to support the family as virus precautions and distance learning in the district remain in place. Ashley cares for her three brothers who are between the ages of 8 and 12 during the day.

"Seeing my mom work hard makes me stronger for my brothers," she said. "I don't know if it's hard (to get work done), but to get my brothers to listen to me? That's kinda hard."

Castro’s school gave her a Wi-Fi hotspot as part of the district’s efforts to get every student connected. A limited number of hotspots are available, but so far the district has been able to fulfill every request.

Jean Paul Ortiz does schoolwork at home in Phoenix.  Many schools assign laptops to students for distance learning, but not every household has Wi-Fi.

While all students had their own school-assigned laptops, the district realized not everyone had connectivity at home and as the pandemic continued, some parents became increasingly unable to pay the internet bill. In tough times, that’s usually the first utility to go as parents must make decisions about how to spend money.

“Internet access is constantly in flux with our families,” said Brigette Smith, principal at Cesar Chavez Leadership Academy. “If there’s a bill that needs to be cut, internet is usually the first to go.”

Attendance at Cesar Chavez Leadership Academy has improved in the fall semester now that nearly 100% of students are connected with their school laptops. More than 80% of students attend the virtual classes class regularly. Smith said attendance in the spring was so low that the school doesn’t even have a figure for it. 

The lack of an internet connection doesn’t just impede a student’s ability to join online classes. It can alienate them from school entirely as students can’t do simple things like check grades, look up assignment instructions or collaborate with peers, according to a Michigan State University study on broadband connection and student performance.

That study found that while race and socioeconomic status may be good indicators of the digital divide, any student without a reliable connection suffers in their performance regardless of race or income.

For Castro, a hotspot not only means she can get her work done in the comfort of home, but she can also focus on other things, like keeping her brothers “straight” — or out of trouble. 

Roosevelt School District already had a technology plan before the pandemic that encouraged tech literacy. This gave the district some reprieve in the scramble to adapt to distance learning as most students were comfortable with the equipment because they already had laptops assigned to them. The district also has a team who can jump on tech issues and work out solutions with parents.

The need to work remotely fostered parental involvement. Principals in the district said parents seem more comfortable talking to their schools about the challenges facing them at home, whether it’s internet or food. It’s also allowed parents to be present and participate in their child’s education where work schedules and other responsibilities made in-person meetings impossible.

“Internet is not a luxury, it’s a utility,” said Leslie Saulsby, principal at Maxine O. Bush Elementary. “There’s a lot of new technology we’ve been using that we can continue to use in the future. If you couldn’t make a parent-teacher conference, now you never have to miss it.”

STAYING ONLINE:  Despite hardships, some south Phoenix parents want to continue distance learning

What’s lost without Wi-Fi

Hartley, who received a tablet from the city, is a busy woman even after her duties to her seven children. She is a domestic-abuse survivor who is writing a book about her life with the hope that it will let young women know they can overcome. She is a member of several women’s business organizations and attended classes and webinars regularly.

Her children all had laptops for their schoolwork, but she only had her phone that she would use to connect to her various meetings. It wasn’t reliable and cut down the quality of the call.

Her children’s laptops are only meant to connect to websites needed for school, so even in a pinch she couldn’t use any of their equipment. Hartley also has three children with disabilities. When her autistic child wanted to watch a video, she only had her phone to offer.

It’s been challenging managing eight people in the home at once. Hartley said they are always “bumping into” each other and she’s had minimal reprieve from all her daily duties aside from listening to calming music once in a while. But having the tablet meant freedom: Freedom from worry about internet bills and service outages.

“My daughter has been having problems with her school laptop. We had to take it in three, four times already, and she gets very frustrated,” Hartley said. “Before she had to lose the whole day when her computer didn’t work. Now she can use the tablet to go to class.”

Imelda Hartley works on a tablet she received from the city of Phoenix while her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) use their school-issued laptops for distance learning. They connect to the internet through mobile Wi-Fi units the city of Phoenix stationed in neighborhoods with the highest need.

An internet connection is integral to community success, Mossberger said. It allows for political participation, drives economic success and connects the community to resources and to one another.

“Internet use not only has benefits for individuals but it has spillover benefits for the community, too,” Mossberger said. “A high percentage of the population with broadband matters for income, employment and prosperity as a whole.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this move to digital as people began to grocery shop, order food and visit the doctor through online channels. This idea is in part why the City Council expanded its hotspot program to include the elderly living in public housing.

“There was one grandma in particular who told us she hadn’t been able to get a doctor’s appointment because she needed to make one online,” Garcia said. “That’s why we decided to expand the program to the elderly to meet their needs.”

Laying the groundwork

The city expanded Wi-Fi access in libraries and other public buildings over the summer so that those in need of a connection could connect from the parking lot. This solution is a temporary fix and not accommodating for everyone, Mossberger said. It’s sometimes difficult for families to be able to take everyone in their car, the heat in Phoenix can make it overwhelming to sit in a parking lot for long periods and not everyone has transportation to get to these buildings.

"While this is a valiant, wonderful, creative short-term solution on the cities and the schools, it's not a long-term solution," said Christine Mackay, director of the city's community and economic development department. "When the pandemic is over and when the time is up for the hotspots, we are back to the digital divide."

The city built a team over the summer consisting of planning and economic development employees and leaders in tech and education. The team presented an update on plans to create a long-term solution for the digital divide at its Oct. 22 policy meeting that focused on making internet infrastructure available to families with children in school where their Wi-Fi connects back to that student’s school.

Most of the problem with affordability and infrastructure stems from the federal level, Mossberger said, but a city can build public-private partnerships, which Phoenix is doing to develop its plan to connect students back to on-campus Wi-Fi. City leaders plan to connect with schools, tech companies and other city agencies to bring the plan together.

The plan is currently in Phase 1, which is a test run taking place at Phoenix College. The next step is to test the plan in the community, which is set to take place in apartment complexes where there are high numbers of students who don’t have internet connections.

In its later phases, the connection grid would connect all 250 square miles of the Phoenix Union High School District. Students in all districts in Phoenix would eventually be connected back to their schools.

Mackay said the project’s goal is to permanently close the digital divide in Phoenix, potentially expand out into other cities, provide workforce training to maintain the new infrastructure and to prepare students for high-tech jobs.

“Those students are our workforce of the future … we really succeeded in changing Phoenix into this high-performing, moving economy and we don’t want to go back to the time of low-end call centers as our primary source of economic development,” she said at the meeting.

Creating the needed infrastructure is expensive and the budget for this project is limited, even though it wouldn’t require much to get the coverage needed to support the plan. That is an opportunity for the city to continue to find creative solutions for some, but others say priorities need to be shifted.

“There are areas we spend a whole lot of money on that should be shifted to things like this,” Garcia said. “I actually think we failed them (students). We’re not taking them into account.”

The city distributed 800 tablets to children in public housing so far and has mobile Wi-Fi units to be stationed at neighborhoods with the highest need. Although these plans have a limited capacity, they are taking a burden off the shoulders of those it serves.

“Sixty-five dollars is a lot for low-income families like me who struggle," Hartley said. "We don't have to go through the stress of what we're going to do if we can't pay the internet."

Have a story tip about south Phoenix? Reach reporter Megan Taros at MTaros@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @megataros.

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