D.C. leaders are taking the first steps Wednesday to explore the feasibility of providing free WiFi throughout the city to help close a persistent digital divide.
The digital divide refers to the gap between people who have access to the Internet and technology and those who don’t. Officials estimate that 150,000 city residents don’t have access to broadband Internet at home because they can’t afford it, don’t see the importance of it or don’t know how to use it.
The city is still in the early stages of discussion in bringing municipal WiFi to the streets of Washington. In March, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) introduced legislation to establish a task force that would meet at least eight times a year and provide recommendations on how to operate and implement such a large-scale municipal wireless network. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) co-introduced the legislation.
On Wednesday, Orange — who chairs the council’s Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs — is convening a hearing to examine the possibility of such a task force.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback,” he said. “I see this as a way to bridge the digital divide.” He said that if the necessary legislation is passed, he expects free WiFi could be in place by 2019.
The District is hardly a leader on the issue of providing free WiFi, particularly to those in underserved communities. President Obama has said he supports municipal broadband efforts. U.S. senators have pushed legislation that would prevent states from blocking the creation of municipal WiFi systems as a way to boost the coffers of Internet providers.
In February, Monumental Sports & Entertainment chairman Ted Leonsis called on the District to provide citywide WiFi after he read about New York’s efforts in wiring the city. Cities like San Francisco and dozens of other municipalities offer some form of free WiFi in portions of their public spaces.
In November, the District relaunched its Mobile Tech Lab, a roving truck with WiFi, computers and couches that goes to underserved communities so people without access to the Internet can use equipment in the truck.
Wednesday’s hearing on the “WiFi Taskforce Act” started at 10 a.m. and can be streamed here.