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No 'citizen left offline:' Gary launches broadband initiative to bridge digital divide

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GARY — In 2020, as schools across the globe pivoted to remote learning, the lack of internet access in rural areas filled headlines. However, pervasive connectivity issues in urban settings have shed light on a problem that began long before the pandemic — digital equity. 

When the pandemic hit, the Gary Community School Corp., like so many other school districts, scrambled to load lessons onto Google Classroom. In May of 2020, 4,700 Chromebooks were passed out and every student that needed a Wi-Fi hotspot received one. As remote learning continued, Director of IT Darrell Riddell began receiving complaints about connectivity. 

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince delivers his 2021 State of the City address Wednesday at Gary SouthShore RailCats Steel Yard stadium. Video by Connor Burge

In some apartment buildings, where multiple people were using the same hotspot, students would even perch the device atop a window to get a better signal. After working with a local internet provider to analyze the issue, Riddell found that Gary simply does not have enough Wi-Fi towers. 

"I can give every scholar a device, I can give them hotspots, but if the infrastructure at home is not sufficient, it does them no good," Riddell said. 

The increased reliance on online resources during the pandemic laid bare what Lloyd Keith and others have known for years — Gary has an internet problem. 

Choosing not to wire

After commuting to Chicago for years, Keith decided to utilize his information technology expertise closer to home — accepting a job as the Gary school corporation director of IT in 2013. Keith got to work right away, wiring all of the schools with fiber internet, which he explained "gives you the opportunity to go fast."

In 2017 Keith became the chief innovation officer for the city of Gary, but the changes he brought to Gary schools have continued. Riddell has since made some updates to the internet and the school is now a one-to-one facility meaning all students are given either an iPad, for those in pre-K through first grade, or a Chromebook. 

"As long as (students) are on school grounds, they have reliable access to the internet," Riddell said, adding that students often stay after school to finish up homework. 

Off school property, it is a different story. 

During a February City Council Ways and Means Committee meeting, Keith presented a slideshow that laid out the glaring disparities between Gary's internet access and the rest of Lake County. One map shows internet speeds in different areas, measured by megabit per second, or Mbps. Almost all of Gary is colored pink, meaning speeds are 1 Mbps to 150 Mbps. The city is starkly contrasted by surrounding communities, which are almost entirely green, meaning speeds are 1 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. 

The speed ranges allow for areas in the green that are slower and areas in the pink that are faster, but Keith said the majority of Gary is actually under 25 Mbps. If you try to use multiple devices in homes where the internet is below 100 Mbps, "you're spinning" Keith said. 

The few patches of green in Gary are places where there is new development. Keith said newer homes are usually wired with fiber internet instead of cable.

The vast majority of Gary does not have fiber, something Keith said was a choice made by internet providers.

“With fiber, you can go fast, but you have to invest in the necessary infrastructure," Keith said. “Gary’s pink because (internet providers) chose not to invest.”

When asked why the internet providers chose not to invest, Keith, who is African American, pointed to the skin on his hand. 

“Where I sit, it’s obvious when you look at the map. You chose not to invest in the communities that are African American, simple as that,” Keith said. "They claim it is because there are not enough houses to make it a good return on investment. ... I understand that, but give us a solution. Don’t just leave us out there."

Now city leaders are focused on creating their own solution. 

Creating a solution 

As soon as Mayor Jerome Prince and his administration learned the city would be receiving $80.3 million of American Rescue Act funds, addressing Gary's digital equity issue became a top priority. 

Last February a Smart Cities Consortium was put together. Consisting of representatives from the city, Indiana University Northwest, Gary School Corp. and several major internet providers, the group meets regularly on Zoom to discuss ideas. 

From the many conversations a five-part plan was born. 

To kick things off, the team will work with a service provider to get free Wi-Fi in six city parks, one in each district. The city hopes to complete the project by the end of September 2022.

Keith said getting internet in the parks is immediately actionable and will show what works and what does not, before the team ultimately tries to wire Gary neighborhoods. 

“We wanted to do something coming out of the gate, the other pieces may take more time," Keith said. 

Once the scope of the problem has been assessed and the needed infrastructure has been determined, the team will put out a Request for Proposals to draw potential internet providers.

Ideally, multiple providers would wire the city so that there is not a monopoly. Keith also said he would like the city to own the fiber infrastructure so Gary can "call some of the shots" and ensure the internet is affordable for residents. 

Ideally, the minimum internet speed throughout the city to be 100 Mbps, Keith said. 

The Prince Administration has also been focused on drawing e-commerce and other technology-related industry to the city. 

“We want companies to come to Gary, we want businesses to invest in Gary and we don’t want the lack of being able to get online at fast speeds for a business to be one of their deciding factors for not coming,” Keith said. 

No citizen left offline 

Another tangible goal in the city's "plan of attack" is to increase broadband subscriptions, Keith said. In a number of census tracts across the city almost 50% of residents are not subscribed to a broadband service. 

While the team does not have a timeline yet, Keith said they would like to reduce the number of non-subscribers in each tract by two-thirds and eventually by 90%. 

The final element of the city's digital equity initiative will be to provide technology training for select seniors. To access telehealth, pay bills, view entertainment, find employment and even get paid — you need the internet and you need to know how to use it, Keith said. 

"Mayor Prince does not want any citizen left offline,” Keith said. "(The internet) is a utility now, you can't operate without it. ... If you don't have the appropriate speeds to make those connections, your quality of life is diminished."

The Gary City Council approved a plan allocating $5 million of ARPA funds towards the digital equity initiative. Keith said the funding will help the team assess the issue, then they will go after more federal funding. 

The Gary School Corp. also recently received an Emergency Connectivity Fund grant of $2 million. Riddell said the money will go towards replacing all of the student's Chromebooks and iPads before fall 2022. 

"We saw the problem, and then the city got ARPA funds and now it's all about doing what we gotta do for the constituents," Keith said. "Let's make it happen."


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