Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County to develop plan to confront digital inequity by 2027

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey was joined by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and City Department of Innovation and Performance Directo Heidi Norman to announce the coalition Tuesday.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey was joined by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and City Department of Innovation and Performance Directo Heidi Norman to announce the coalition Tuesday.

Pittsburgh regional leaders formed a new coalition Tuesday to get more residents online with high-speed internet. The coalition will create a plan to “close the digital divide” in the region, officials said at a press conference Downtown.

“We know all too well how innovation and transformation can leave communities behind,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. “Our transformation to an eds-and-meds economy, one that drives technological advances in robotics and medical engineering, will not leave anyone behind.”

About 30% of the city's elderly, and a similar share of households that earn less than $20,000 annually, do not have access to broadband, Gainey said. “We have to continue to make sure that we shrink the gap,” he pledged. "In a 21st Century economy, this is unacceptable."

The Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition includes more than a dozen community stakeholders and organizations. Among them are elected officials, government agencies and a wide range of nonprofit and social-service agencies.

Officials said the group would meet regularly over the next six months to develop a plan to fill gaps in connectivity across the region, using financial assistance, educational support or other means. By spring, they said, they hoped to have a five-year plan aimed at closing the digital divide by 2027.

That plan will include information about the unique challenges Pittsburgh faces in connecting every resident, and outline the actions necessary to ensure everyone has access to affordable internet service — as well as the devices and the skills necessary to use the internet.

Poor or no internet connections can be big obstacles for businesses, employees and students. But the implications go beyond creating career opportunities and sustaining business. For some, internet access can mean the difference between staying in southwestern Pennsylvania or facing deportation.

When Pittsburgh’s Immigration court closed in April, immigrant advocacy group Casa San Jose warned that many undocumented people had relied on help from a government office in the South Side to get help connecting to their hearings. About 91% of Latino residents do not have a connected device other than their smartphone, according to a study from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Allies for Children and Carnegie Mellon University.

High service costs have been identified as one hurdle the coalition will try to help residents clear. More than 87% of customers in southwestern Pennsylvania pay more than $75 per month for internet service, which is higher than the national average cost of $64 in 2021, according to the SPC study.

Officials were short on specifics Tuesday, and did not indicate whether the coalition would prioritize connection speed alongside affordable plans. Allegheny County is home to some of southwestern Pennsylvania’s highest internet speeds, but it also ranks among the areas with the highest number of households with poor connections, according to the SPC study.

In May, the Biden administration announced that 20 internet companies have agreed to provide discounted service to people with low incomes. The program aims to make tens of millions of households eligible for free service through a federal subsidy established under President Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure package.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald pointed to federal aid as one source of funding for the Digital Equity Coalition. The group will also lean on partners like Comcast and Meta Mesh Wireless Communities to help Pittsburghers get connected, he said.

“Our community always does its best when we work together, collaboratively, bringing all of our resources together to solve challenges, and the digital divide is no exception,” said Fitzgerald. “We are grateful to the many organizations which have answered this call and will work with us to ensure that we are able to increase broadband access, particularly in senior, Black and Brown communities.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.