The Washington, D.C. Council is considering two bills this week that aim to make public wireless internet available to city residents to promote digital literacy. These bills are intended to close the gap between residents with and without Wi-Fi.
The Wi-Fi Task Force Act of 2017 proposes a task force composed of governmental and nongovernmental representatives whose goal is to research a plan for a public wireless internet network in the District. The second bill, the Digital Literacy Council Establishment Act of 2017, proposes the creation of a similar committee designed to research and recommend methods to improve digital literacy in education and the workforce.
The public Wi-Fi bill, currently under committee review, was introduced by D.C. Councilman Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and four of the council’s 13 members. The digital literacy bill is set to be marked up and amended this week.
Todd said during a press conference that a public investment in internet access and proficiency will yield outstanding results in the age of the digital economy and will close the skills gap for many of D.C.’s low-income residents.
The Wi-Fi Task Force would report policy recommendations to the Council by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, the Digital Literacy Council would create two distinct policy plans for the City Council — one intended for workforce digital literacy and the other for public school students in the District — within six months.
Joshua Fleitman, spokesman for Todd, said improving internet access is vital, as it permeates so much of daily activity.
“The world works around the internet these days. It’s not just about funny videos on YouTube. It’s about access to study materials for students, access to capital, access to resources, small businesses, large businesses, nonprofits. Really, if you don’t have access to the internet, you are at a systemic disadvantage in today’s world,” Fleitman said in an interview with The Hoya.
Fleitman also emphasized that, beyond merely having access to the internet, D.C. residents need to have the tools to use it effectively. The digital literacy bill is intended to achieve the latter.
According to Elizabeth Lindsey, the executive director of Byte Back, a nonprofit operating in D.C. that provides free technological education and computer training to residents, there is a large need for more widespread internet access in the District.
“Across this city, thousands of our neighbors wake up each morning without access to the digital tools that most of us take for granted. Reading the news on an app, paying a bill online, emailing a resume to a potential employer — for those without home internet access, these activities are not a simple part of a daily routine. They are obstacles to overcome,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey explained the importance of bringing the internet to residents who have been excluded from using it.
“One of our students would spend entire evenings in a Byte Back computer lab studying for his computer networking exam, leaving only when the office closed after tutoring hours. He didn’t have access to the internet at home. Despite this barrier, he passed his exam — but imagine what he could have accomplished if we broke that barrier down,” Lindsey said.
Though Wi-Fi access is prevalent in Georgetown and the District’s other affluent neighborhoods, it is less easily found in poorer areas — particularly neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Lindsey said that, with greater access and education, low-income residents will be able to compete with more privileged residents in the digital economy.
“One of our beginner students, who used the internet for the first time at age 65, said, ‘I felt like I was being left behind. It seemed like everywhere I looked, on billboards, in magazines, recorded in the phone messages of different offices I was calling, people were telling me to go to some address called ‘www’ for more information,” Lindsey said. “It’s so important that this bill incorporates not just the expansion of Wi-Fi access but also a digital literacy component.”
According to Lindsey, these measures will also spur job growth within the District.
“With education comes opportunity, and that’s what we see every day at Byte Back. People who have faced sometimes years of unemployment and underemployment are able to attain living-wage jobs after getting the training they need to succeed in the digital economy,” Lindsey said.
Fleitman said that this legislation will likely improve conditions for both businesses and employees, especially as it relates to tourists in D.C.
“There’s research that shows when there’s free public Wi-Fi available, tourists are more likely to look up stores and spend more money. So that’ll help create retail jobs. So much of this opportunity is based around the internet and having digital literacy skills. So, it’s about job growth. It’s about quality of life. It’s about bridging the digital divide. It’s about all those things,” Fleitman said.