Madison is looking to close the “digital divide” by providing high-speed internet to low-income residents and students of those families who cannot afford it.
Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, proposed a $100,000 amendment that passed at Tuesday’s Board of Estimates meeting that will go towards a feasibility study to provide internet throughout Madison using a high-speed Long Term Evolution network.
The goal of the study is to find a way to create a city co-op utility that would provide wireless internet to low-income neighborhoods and families.
“If you think about students in the Madison School District, there are still students who don’t have access within their homes,” Resnick said. “When they try and compete in the classroom it becomes a huge disadvantage. The answer of ‘you can go to the library’ is no longer a satisfactory solution,” he said.
Resnick said the LTE network would be similar to getting a library Wi-Fi connection a mile and a half away at home. He has said previously that for many students in Madison, when the library closes, places like McDonald’s becomes their library.
Resnick has focused on the digital divide since he took office in 2011. At the Board of Estimates meeting, Mayor Paul Soglin said that they are working off of national studies that show that about one-third of households do not have high-speed internet access. Many alders at the meeting agreed on the necessity to combat this divide.
“We have to take some risk and if we’re serious about doing something about the divide in this community, if we’re serious about what’s going on in low-income households. This is one mechanism which is relatively cheap given the way we’re spending money to get some really significant outcomes, not just in terms of education, but also in terms of job opportunity,” Soglin said.
Some alders were concerned that, if accepted, the proposed budget amendment would make the previous amendment, concerning putting in a optic fiber high-speed cable near community centers, redundant. Resnick disagreed, noting the fiber cable is still necessary for the LTE network.
Both budget amendments are focused on closing the digital divide, providing a space at home as well as other places in the community to access high-speed internet. Resnick said the biggest benefit to providing internet would be that it would serve students as an additional tool.
“Having internet access doesn’t guarantee you success in the classroom,” he said. “It is, though, another tool that allows students to remain competitive in the classroom.”
Now that the proposed amendment has passed, Resnick said the next steps are to start the study and begin putting together the infrastructure.
The council will hire a consulting organization to help gather input, and talk to community leaders to look at how they can leverage the current fiber optic network.
“We need to make sure that we’re going to close the achievement gap in Madison,” Resnick said. “We need to work together with our partners to make sure the internet is in the homes of our students.”