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After the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most everyday tasks into cyberspace, connectivity became a real problem for almost a third of Philadelphians who weren’t online in 2019.
Sandra Speight, 78, was one of them. Envious of her 10-year-old granddaughter’s digital savvy, she tried to sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal benefit that debuted in 2021 to help make the internet cheaper for lower-income households across the country.
Ironically, Speight thought she’d have to get online to apply.
But listening to a local radio station one day, she found an answer. Speight heard about the Digital Navigators program — local guides reachable on Pennsylvania’s 211 hotline to help residents get computers, connect them to the internet, and learn how to use them.
Now, Speight doesn’t just have $30 monthly internet, she’s also got a free laptop.
That’s because she attended an event on Wednesday at Esperanza Academy in North Philadelphia, where Comcast, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and local partners announced they’re expanding their digital navigator program to Philadelphia’s neighboring counties in November.
Applause echoed against the high atrium ceiling as a Comcast representative pulled back a blanket covering 50 laptops donated to Esperanza Academy and participants of the program — including Speight.
“This is awesome because I’ve had mine since, maybe, 2015 or something? I don’t know,” she laughed. The almost-octogenarian says she’ll use her new machine to learn Spanish.
Holding a laptop for one of the residents he assisted, Esperanza Academy digital navigator Alex Garcia-Miles said a Wi-Fi connection could do everything from opening career pathways to boosting a person’s confidence.
“A lot of people are sort of embarrassed that they don’t have these skills that are sort of expected in the modern world,” he said.
Through workshops and one-on-one support, Garcia-Miles said he’s seen residents switch career paths to less physically demanding jobs, learn digital skills like Excel, and some of them operate a computer for the first time in their lives.
At Wednesday’s event, Comcast touted major gains in connectivity, especially for households with school-aged children. Stephanie L. Kosta, Comcast’s regional vice president of government & regulatory affairs & community impact, said the company’s efforts helped boost the number of connected K-12 families in Philadelphia from 70 to 91 percent in just two years.
But officials and experts say there’s still work to do to close the digital gap. A 2021 report by the city of Philadelphia says a third of its residents still have trouble paying monthly internet fees, and only 14 percent of residents who had heard of discount programs successfully applied.
The report said elderly, lower-income, and Spanish-speaking residents have the hardest time accessing affordability programs for internet connection in Philadelphia.
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