Chicago Calls For Digital Equity

The City of Chicago’s Digital Equity Council recently published its new digital equity plan – which includes new initiatives to install public Wi-Fi, use city assets to boost broadband, and encourage the uptake of federal connectivity subsidies. It also focuses on improving access to devices, training, and providing transparent information. 

In recent years, Chicago has been working to decrease its digital divide, yet recent studies have shown that over 15% of households (~172,000) still don’t have internet at home and as many as 8% (~92,000) do not have access to a connected device (such as a computer, laptop, tablet, or smart mobile device) at home. In the ten least-connected areas in Chicago, 72% of residents are Black and 25% are Latinx, with the average median household income just under US$35,000.

In creating the Plan, the Digital Equity Council collaboratively worked with city agencies, local businesses, residents, and other stakeholders for months – conducting 17 workshops, 3,000 survey responses, and conversations with nearly 400 residents.

A key part of the new plan is to make the Digital Equity Council a long-term coalition that will provide a permanent space for advocacy, feedback, networking, and sharing best practices. The plan’s recommendations include:

  • creating a public-facing website for digital equity resources and a consumer toolkit for navigating broadband offerings;
  • coordinating a citywide campaign with the aim of increasing sign ups to the federal Affordable Connectivity Program;
  • installing free public Wi-Fi at 60 parks; 
  • launching a Request for Proposals regarding making assets such as rooftops and light poles available for broadband providers offering affordable services for underserved communities; and
  • building on current projects to improve digital literacy through schools, colleges, libraries and community organizations.

The city will spend US$36 million for digital equity – including US$28 million for neighborhood broadband and US$6 million for Wi-Fi in parks –  from the Chicago Recovery Plan, which was funded through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It also plans to use additional funding from sources such as the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program and Digital Equity Act.