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Cross-Agency Collaboration Aims to Erase L.A.’s Digital Divide

Three Los Angeles County departments recently announced a joint plan to tackle the digital divide with a focus on IT upskilling, digital literacy through library technology and remote digital accessibility utilizing the public park system.

In a world so intricately spurred by evolving tech innovation, those without reliable Internet access or technological resources face significant disadvantages. Limited access to the Internet, digital devices such as computers, and even the knowledge necessary to use new technology hinder individuals’ ability to pursue educational opportunities, find employment, access health-care services and engage in civic participation.

The Los Angeles County Internal Services Department (ISD) estimates that approximately 265,000 households in the county do not have a home computer; 311,000 households have Internet access only through their cellphones; and some 416,000 households have no Internet access at all.

As such, the county has invested more than $76 million into programs and grants, with the help of American Rescue Plan funds, to provide more access to technology, the Internet and digital literacy initiatives.

The county’s ISD, Department of Parks and Recreation and the Public Library System held a media briefing last week detailing their current and future unification efforts to bring digital literacy and tech resources to communities lacking access. During the briefing, the director of L.A. County Libraries, Skye Patrick, said a three-prong approach would be used to provide digital resources to communities.

“Our Laptop Lending Program is one of our favorite resources available at all 85 of our community libraries that gives residents the ability to borrow a laptop and an accompanying hot spot for up to six weeks at a time,” Patrick said. “We also have Chromebooks available with built-in LTE that offer an opportunity to connect anywhere at any time without having to purchase Wi-Fi, as it features its own internal, embedded Wi-Fi that is available for six weeks.”

In addition, Patrick shared information about the Laptop Express program, which allows residents to check out and use designated laptops within the library for two hours at a time. According to Patrick, through the American Rescue Plan, over 1,000 laptops have been distributed so far.

The libraries’ Work Ready Laptops and Career Training program, implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, allows library visitors to borrow a laptop and wireless hot spot kit for up to six weeks specifically to participate in a six-week training class.

“The Work Ready virtual events series allows participants to take advantage of job training courses surrounding everything from interviewing to writing a cover letter to learning new skills to grow one’s career,” Patrick said.

The libraries have also been able to expand their broadband Wi-Fi range beyond the library through a Park and Connect initiative.

“We decided to really leverage our campuses, and in doing so, we’ve been able to expand the Wi-Fi capabilities outside of our libraries and into surrounding parking lots,” Patrick said during the briefing. “You don’t need to have a library card to access the free Wi-Fi within 25 feet of the library and don’t need to sit in your car, though that is an option. Sit in the grass, sit by the water and still utilize the service.”

Internal Services Department Director Selwyn Hollins said one of the programs spearheaded by the department is called Delete the Divide (DTD), which is an umbrella program composed of several services, including internships and certifications.

The DTD internship, also recognized by the state as a pre-apprenticeship program, kicked off late last year, and currently 130 interns are enrolled. Interns are allowed to explore the IT industry and build the skills and professional network needed to pursue a career in the IT field. No prior education or job experience is required to become an intern.

“Our only requirement is a passion for technology — in any space of technology — and for applicants to be at least 16 years of age,” Hollins said. “Interns can work up to 25 hours per week, and in the summer, 35 hours per week, receiving great networking opportunities while being exposed to hands-on work experience.”

ISD is aiming to reach 200 interns by July.

Another key program offered to bridge the digital divide in L.A. County focuses on professional IT certificates.

“The certificate program, through Google and Meta, covers a variety of subject areas,” Hollins explained during the briefing. “There is no prior experience needed to take the courses, and it requires about 100 hours to complete the self-paced curriculum. However, students have between two and six months to do so.”

Hollins added that individuals who complete the required coursework and acquire their certificate usually qualify for jobs that start in the $50,000- to $60,000-per-year pay range.

“When you have over a million households that only earn $50,000 a year in L.A. County, in six months an individual can acquire a certificate and potentially change the financial situation for their families,” Hollins said. “And we offer this program free for individuals who are in underserved communities that are impacted by the digital divide.”

The county library system is a key ISD partner as it provides DTD interns a place to flex their newly acquired skills. They are able to assist visitors with technical support and digital literacy, which is especially valuable in areas without other resources.

Hollins also spoke on a new, growing tech event geared toward middle and high school students interested in gaining experience in the IT field.

“Last year, we had our first Tech Empowerment Day with about 3,200 middle and high school students getting hands-on experience with technology to expand their awareness and understanding,” Hollins shared. “We had about 20 to 30 IT corporations and departments participate in last year’s event and expect this year’s event in October during Digital Inclusion Month to double in size with about 6,000 students from L.A. County participating.”

One additional resource being used heavily to narrow the digital divide in the county and across the nation is the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federal initiative aimed at helping low-income households afford high-speed Internet connections through a $30 monthly federal subsidy. The county leads the nation in the number of people enrolled in the ACP, according to Hollins, who noted that of the 1.6 million eligible households, 700,000 households were already enrolled.

“Although we’ve made progress, there’s still work to do to get the word out about this great resource,” Hollins said. “For some communities, deciding on an Internet bill has to be compared to paying rent or buying food, and when you need employment, education or telehealth, it’s very important to have Internet access and support.”

Parks have also played a critical and evolving role in providing digital services in recent years, said Department of Parks and Recreation Director Norma Edith García-Gonzalez. Seventy-three county park locations offer free Wi-Fi to visitors, and the Parks and Recreation Department is working with ISD to uncover more ways to expand Wi-Fi accessibility.

“As more workers, especially our young workers, access telework, they may not have all the resources or the appropriate environment to be able to do telework, so what we’re starting to see at our parks is a usage of teleworkers accessing the Wi-Fi that we offer,” García-Gonzalez said. “People that might not want to or can’t work from home go to the park, open up a laptop and spend various hours at our park for that purpose, making the critical importance of having Wi-Fi accessibility and connectivity at parks crucial.”

This story first appeared in Government Technology magazine, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology magazine.