Gwen Shaffer

is a co-organizer of the Philadelphia Digital

Justice Coalition

Recent City Council hearings saw some heated debate about whether to grant Verizon a franchise to bring its FiOS television service to Philadelphia. Councilwoman Joan Krajewski was in a tizzy over when her Northeast district would get wired. Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. questioned how disadvantaged businesses would benefit.

Unfortunately, though, Council missed a chance to help close the digital divide in Philadelphia, where half the population lacks high-speed Internet access.

Under the proposed deal, Verizon would be obligated to provide a $2 million "technology, education and municipal facilities grant" over eight years. This breaks down to less than 17 cents per resident per year. And because neither Council nor Mayor Nutter's administration has moved to earmark the money, there's no guarantee it will even go toward expanding broadband access.

Local leaders also missed a chance to require that Verizon provide discounted or free Internet subscriptions for low-income residents.

Critical changes

The Philadelphia Digital Justice Coalition is pushing for modest but critical changes to the Verizon deal that would help get the most marginalized residents online.

Many of the policy priorities articulated by City Council and the administration would benefit from reliable, widespread Internet access. They include improving the high school graduation rate and making government more transparent. And ubiquitous access would make services more efficient at a time when the city faces severe shortfalls.

Philadelphians who have high-speed Internet connections already benefit from more government services. For example:

The Department of Licenses and Inspections' Web site allows property owners to get electronic permits and forms.

Beginning this month, the Court of Common Pleas requires that all civil suits be filed electronically.

Residents with Internet access can file nonemergency police complaints online.

The Streets Department urges residents to report potholes online.

Officials send emergency alerts to residents via e-mail.

Disparities

Studies have shown that closing the digital divide helps close other divides, including disparities in education, health care, housing and economic opportunity. Even for a chance to flip burgers at McDonald's or stock the aisles at Target, job seekers must apply online.

Digital communication is part of nearly every aspect of our daily routines - registering for a college course, checking a SEPTA schedule, buying a concert ticket, e-mailing a Council member, or downloading a grocery coupon.

With a quarter of its residents living below the federal poverty line, it's no surprise that Philadelphia lags behind the national average for connectivity. So Council and the mayor have a responsibility to ensure that the agreement with Verizon includes money for digital inclusion initiatives and discounted Internet accounts for low-income residents.

The Council committee reviewing the deal is scheduled to meet for a third and likely last time tomorrow. What it does could affect Philadelphians' access to the Internet for the next 15 years.