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Is Wi-Fi an Essential Service in 2020?

GUEST WORDS-Can you access your bank account online? Are you able to refill your prescriptions online? Do you have children trying to keep up with their school classes using the Internet?

For many people the answers are yes, and they take for granted being able to do those things. But for many other people, fast reliable Internet service is a dream they cannot afford. And the fact that millions of people can’t afford the basic technology that is now part of virtually every aspect of our lives is unacceptable. To have so many people at such a severe disadvantage hinders our society as a whole. That’s always been true but perhaps it was never more obvious than since COVID-19 hit. 

The pandemic has forced us to face several harsh realities about our lives and society, including the many inequities that exist. As Los Angeles went into lockdown in March, one of those inequities that was made even more starkly obvious was the digital divide -- the difference between those who have technology tools and Internet access that facilitate the ability to work-at-home and learn-at-home and those who lack the tools and/or access. 

Now, months later, as we struggle to re-gain some sense of normalcy, it’s clear that this pandemic (or equally frighteningly, the next one) will be an influence in our lives for a significant period of time. So, we need to address that digital divide because while on the face of it, it may seem to be a technology issue, it is, in reality, a social justice issue. 

I believe we should start on the access side of the equation. Hundreds of cities and counties around the U..S have already turned to community broadband and Los Angeles should seriously consider it, too. We should build a Wi-Fi system that serves all residents and businesses equally, free of charge, with speeds that are sufficient for students to participate in their online classrooms, parents to effectively work from home, if their job allows, and everyone to communicate with their healthcare providers and other essential professionals. 

This free Internet doesn’t need to be so robust that everyone can stream movies or play online games -- people who want to do that can and should continue to pay for enhanced access at faster speeds. But it needs to be robust enough that it makes a significant difference in the lives of people and communities that are currently at a steep disadvantage. 

The fact is the Internet has become a critical utility in our lives, just like electricity and water. Our federal government should be paying attention to and addressing the digital divide. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. 

Los Angeles’ leaders should make this a priority along with all other infrastructure needs in the city. While initial costs would no doubt be substantial, I want to seek out creative ways to cover those costs, at least some of them. And what better initiative to position Los Angeles at the forefront of the digital world than free wireless Internet for all? 

I’m not a technology expert. But I am a leader, and what leaders do is find the right experts to help them see the opportunities and manage challenges of a situation or project. When I am elected to City Hall, I will bring together experts from all of the necessary fields to determine how to bring quality broadband service to our city, perhaps first as a pilot program specifically in District 10 where we have many low-income families. 

In the meantime, we should also be exploring interim solutions like the one the Santa Ana Unified School District just rolled out: vans and school buses pumping out 5G wireless signals, parked in densely populated neighborhoods where the majority of students lacked the connectivity needed to effectively learn remotely. Not only is that approach helping the students, it’s also putting some bus drivers back to work. 

Los Angeles needs to be innovative, too, and I promise to always be looking for new and fresh ways to address the issues of our city.

 

(Grace Yoo is an attorney and a candidate for Los Angeles City Council District 10.) Image:  Thinkstock. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.