DC Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) has introduced a bill that would greatly expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable internet for all DC residents, no matter where in the District they live.
“We knew before the pandemic that many DC residents were falling behind because reliable and fast internet service wasn’t even an option in their home or neighborhood. Now, after a year with much of our daily lives moved online, it’s clear we cannot continue to treat access to broadband and reliable Wi-Fi as a luxury only for those who can afford it,” said Councilmember Allen. “Often, the gap between households who are moving forward and those being left behind can be measured by the speed of their internet connection.”
The bill has nine co-introducers on the Council: Pinto, Henderson, Lewis George, R. White, Silverman, Gray, Cheh, Nadeau, and Chairman Mendelson.
There are two different challenges Councilmember Allen’s Internet Equity Amendment Act aims to fix. First, while high-speed internet access is available in much of the District, there are some neighborhoods in DC where the infrastructure is still one evolution behind – meaning some neighborhoods can only get speeds as fast as DSL. Second, there are households where high-speed broadband is available, but unaffordable. Given the central role the internet plays in our daily life, either scenario is unacceptable.
The legislation creates a Digital Equity Division within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), and gives that new division a plan of attack for its first year. In the first half of the year, OCTO will have to:
- Identify and set a minimum internet speed that will allow all District residents to work or take classes from home—a standard that the bill requires to be updated at least every 2 years;
- Take an inventory of how easy it is to access online applications for District services and benefits;
- Identify households that are not connected to the internet at all, or connected at a speed too slow to work or take classes from home;
- Identify lower-income households that are connected at a reasonable speed but are paying too much—defined by Councilmember Allen as any household paying more than 0.5 percent of monthly income, or just over $25 a month for family of four earning $63,000 annually.
- Actually connect those who aren’t connected at a reasonable speed, and ensure that households below half of the area median income are both connected at a reasonable speed and paying a reasonable amount each month. This would be done either through expanding the District’s existing Wi-Fi network or working with private internet service providers.
In the following six months after the bill is enacted, OCTO will have to put together a long-term plan that evaluates our existing infrastructure and ensures that all District residents remain connected to internet at a speed that allows them to keep up with the pace of our online lives—including work and school online. The bill leaves open to OCTO the best way forward to reach that goal: it could be creating a municipal internet provider, it could be more lasting partnerships with private internet service providers—especially small, locally-owned internet service providers, or it could be something completely different. OCTO would have to hold public meetings to get feedback while developing the plan, and at least one of the public meetings would have to be in Wards 7 or 8.
“At the end of the day, if we want to live up to the values we claim we hold, we have to recognize the internet is as essential to our lives as water service and electric or gas service. I want the District to move with urgency to ensure that people don’t just have access, but have connections to high-speed internet,” said Allen. “Every District resident should feel like they can be on an even playing field online.”