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Chester County Press

Digital Equity Coalition meeting goals for digital literacy, access

02/07/2023 01:05PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

In March of 2021, a group of 50 concerned and citizens and administrators from various sectors of the community got together in an attempt to calm the unfortunate tide of digital inequity.

Now, two years later, the work of the Southern Chester County Digital Equity Coalition continues to join all sectors of the community to address and advocate for the right to connectivity, with focus on its most underserved members in the areas of access and literacy. Since that time, supported by school administrators, elected officials and the energy of its volunteers, the Coalition has made strides to achieve these goals.

At a Zoom meeting on Feb. 2 organized by the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce (SCCCC) and attended by several dozen stakeholders, including Sens. John Kane and Carolyn Comitta and Rep. Christina Sappey, the members of the Coalition and their supporting agencies spelled out the details of their achievements, and the continuing and pressing need to link the community together.

“This is what we’ve learned many times over during the pandemic – that the reliable broadband access is a basic necessity and can positively impact almost every aspect of our lives,” Comitta said. “Digital access and literacy can make the difference in a child’s education. It can make a difference in the success of a small business, in job growth and career advancement, and health and well-being via telemedicine, which grew exponentially during the pandemic, and so much more.”

From smart phone access to smart home access

Coalition co-founder Jim Mercante said that the group’s key to-do list items have been to address affordability, accessibility, digital literacy and educational support throughout southern Chester County. While most are the beneficiaries of access and literacy, some belong to a subset of the population that Mercante called the “subscription vulnerable.” While some service providers have offered programs for those who need financial assistance, most of these residents – including schoolchildren -- are forced to use their smart phones to gain digital access to their teachers and school administrators.

Another area of vulnerability for some residents has been their inability to access on-line health connections that can link them to crucial healthcare options. Further exacerbating the problem is that for some homeowners living in the more remote areas of the county, they lack the internet connections that are usually provided to them by internet providers.

 “We all know that Chester County is a very wealthy county, but as everyone on this call knows, there are pockets of low-income people who live in remote areas who, just because of where they live, do not have access to the internet,” Mercante said. “We need as a community, as a state and as a country to figure out how to get the internet for all.”

 “More devices need to be provided to more residents in need. It is unacceptable that many people access the internet merely by their smart phone. Our goal is to take us from a smart phone-centered access to a smart home centered access, in order to eventually become a smart community and we believe that has many benefits for our community from a business, commercial, health and educational standpoint, and all of the other things that the internet can provide.”

Chester County Intermediate Unit Assistant Division Director Jessica Sahl said that affordability and accessibility continue to be the biggest hurdles. She said that a recent study was conducted throughout the county that measured broadband connectivity and digital infrastructure, but the results of the study revealed that many working-class households can’t afford the average monthly cost of having cellular broadband capability, which can run as much as $169 per month.

“We found that while many people do have the infrastructure near them, the problem is that they can’t afford it,” Sahl said. “Affordability is a major problem, and there are many barriers for our residents.”

Train-the-trainer workshops, affordability initiative

While the red flags of inaccessibility to the internet continue to plague a cross-section of area residents, the meeting did highlight some new initiatives.

Coalition co-founder Joan Holliday focused on digital literacy programs that have provided residents with the opportunity to participate in “our community, our culture and our economy. Through its partnership with digital literacy provider RSVP and representation from 14 local non-profit organizations, the Coalition has begun train-the-trainers programs for 51 individuals who are providing education in cyber security, web browsing, email, applications and Zoom, in both English and Spanish.

Financial contributions from Square Roots Collective, the Kennett Rotary, the United Way of Southern Chester County and the American Mushroom Institute and private funding has raised $41,000 to help pay for three 14-hour train-the-trainer sessions in 2022, and a fourth session that will be offered in March – as well as an additional $200,000 grant that will continue these efforts for the next three years.

“Our vision is to open doors to new potential for achieving good health, good employment, education and social connection,” Holliday said. “We want to remove the barriers. We have a lot of talented people who can contribute a lot more to our community.”

Comcast representative Caitlin Gainley said that the provider has been working to expand network capability to various areas in Chester County. It recently finished network expansion in Elverson, Honey Brook Borough and Honey Brook Township, and is currently looking to make similar expansions in Oxford Borough and Lower Oxford and East Nottingham townships. She said that residents are eligible for Comcast’s Internet Essentials and also have the ability to purchase a computer for a one-time fee of $149.99.

A county-wide and collaborative agency in development?

Holliday called on county government to create a digital equity inclusion plan and employ at least one full-time staff member dedicated to digital inclusion initiatives. 

Holliday said that she, Mercante and Sahl recently met with Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell; Dr. George F. Fiore, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit; and MaryFrances McGarrity, senior vice president of the Chester County Development Economic Council.

“The agreement was that those two Chester County agencies would be perfect for applying for federal grant funds and managing the implementation of [a digital equity plan] for the county,” Holliday said. “Jim and I have always had this dream that southern Chester County would be a model that would showcase what we could do. The agreement is that we need to be complete and become county-wide.

“We’re grateful for this leadership and will walk with them side-by-side, but we needed a stronger [consortium of agencies] to carry this forward.”

Throughout the meeting, Mercante and Holliday credited the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority; the National Digital Inclusion Alliance; Michelle Moll of RSVP; the Kennett Library; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and SCCC President and CEO Cheryl Kuhn for their commitment to providing insight, resources and networking.

“Joan and Jim have both continuing to work on this tirelessly,” Kuhn said of Holliday and Mercante. “I know I speak for many people who are here with us that I cannot speak highly enough about their commitment and their dedication to the unserved and the underserved in our region and across the county.”

“This is a grass roots effort that will take a village,” said Holliday. “It will take the local, the state and the federal government to really deal with this, but we knew that it also needed the grass-roots energy, so we have really committed ourselves to that.”

Kane referred to the availability of reliable broadband access that gave those in attendance the capability to attend the online meeting.

“Broadband is connecting us all with one another,” said Kane, who is a member of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. “It allows us to interact with the globe to grow our businesses, schools and healthcare opportunities and also to grow our commonwealth.

“We’ve got to be able to move this forward and make sure that it’s done and done right.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].