Who Gets Paid and Who Gets Served, Why Oakland’s 12 Million Dollar Plan Wont Close the Digital Divide

I appreciate the generosity of those that gave to the so called “Oakland Undivided” campaign.  There are literally thousands of underserved Oakland students who cannot get into the digital school house door.   It was encouraging to see the fundraising goal met in less than a week.  I am a lot less encouraged by the actual plan to spend the money, and I doubt whether it will provide a sustainable solution or whether it will actually serve the families it is intended for.

There is a better way.

If you have been in Oakland for a while, you have seen money come and go.  Contractors get paid, consultants get hired, and the families whose faces adorn the fundraising pitch are barely touched by the shower of funding.  A lot of people get paid and the intended beneficiaries are in the same exact place.  Or they have to move out.

Under the current plan, that is the most likely outcome.  I know, because when I listen to families now, I already hear about how things are not working, and the current plan is to do more of the same just fund it more.  At least until the funding runs out.

Let’s take a look at “Oakland Undivided.”   It promises to CLOSE the digital divide by buying devices, hotspots, and working with broadband providers who provide “free or low cost” internet for two years.  A study just came out from Tipping Point, that half of our families missed bills in the year before COVID.  It is obviously worse now.

Those families cannot afford “low cost” internet.  Or free internet that converts to “low cost” in a month or two, where the definition of “low cost” keeps escalating.  They also can’t deal with a bunch of pre-conditions or regulations.  And that is what they are promised, a “free or low cost” internet contract, riddled with strings, fees and asterisks.

A child should not be shut out of the schoolhouse because their guardian can’t or won’t pay for internet.  But that is exactly what the current plan promises.

We Need Internet For All, FREE, No Strings Attached Internet

From the urban internet deserts in Oakland to the rural ones across California and the United States, our babies deserve better.  A simple mantra should guide any digital access policy; Internet for All.  Every family that needs it should get FREE no strings attached internet.  That is the only standard that even starts to fill the digital divide, and anything less just reinforces it.

The educational futures of our most vulnerable students should not be held hostage by broadband providers and shame on us, if we design the system in exactly that way.  There are other ways.

Better Options Exist

First and most simply, the City, District, or both could just promise to pay broadband for students, in what is called a “sponsored agreement.”  They could negotiate rates presumably and get a bulk deal. 

Or more creatively, they could follow Cleveland’s lead.  Nothing against Cleveland, but why are we behind Cleveland?

Cleveland worked with a non profit to create its own network that will cover every child by 2022, they will then pay a set fee to assure that all children are connected.  They basically cut out the private providers. 

Their CEO Alex Gordon hit the nail on the head. “If we think of this as a public utility and an infrastructure investment, and not simply a for-profit strategy, which makes it a luxury, we can get to solutions,”

To attend school you need internet, to see a doctor, you need internet, to apply for a job or benefits, you need internet–to exist as a modern citizen, student or worker, you need internet.

So yes, Oakland needs to follow Cleveland’s lead here, and think differently about our approach to ending the digital divide.  We need local policies that guarantee access, and state and federal support to really make that happen.  And we need creative solutions. 

More of the same solution will lead to more of the same problems.  I don’t have the exact answer but I know that when faced with buying food or paying for internet, food will win.  And more importantly as a rich, smart, and supposedly compassionate city—we should never make parents engage in such a choice.

If we do more of the same, we can expect exactly that.  We need to emerge from this pandemic with a more equitable and durable internet infrastructure.  We need to change the rules to change the game, and change the predetermined winners and losers.  We deserve free, no strings, internet for every family that needs it.  Anything else is just one more familiar sell out.

What do you think?

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