The pandemic didn’t create the digital divide, but like many other problems of the past year, COVID-19 showed just what a problem it is.
“Access to the internet has long been an equity issue,” said Simeon Banister, vice president of community programs at Rochester Area Community Foundation, which worked with Monroe County and others to provide mobile hotspots to city students.
It wasn’t just schoolwork that exposed gaps. People without internet access have been limited in their ability to make vaccine appointments because the process is cumbersome on a smartphone.
“Everyone needs access to affordable and fast internet in order to fully participate in economic, educational and civic opportunities,” said Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.
Both are members of task force announced March 31 by Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. The task force will help develop a community access plan for high-speed internet, which in turn will identify barriers to such a service, examine public and private sector roles in providing that service, seek partnerships and ensure that any county plans to expand access align with state and nonprofit community broadband goals.
Bello named a bipartisan committee led by Ana Liss, director of the Monroe County Department of Planning and Development, to lead the task force.
Members include the following individuals or their representatives:
- Rachel Barnhart, Monroe County legislator
- Steve Brew, Monroe County legislator and majority leader;
- Howard Maffuci, Monroe County legislator,
- Jackie Smith, Monroe County legislator;
- Mary Lupien, Rochester City Council;
- Lovely Warren, mayor;
- Lesli Myers-Small; superintendent, Rochester City School District;
- Simeon Banister, vice president of community programs, Rochester Area Community Foundation;
- Bob Duffy, president and chief executive officer of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce;
- Robert Poltrino, chief operating officer, the Shore Foundation;
- Hanif Abdul-Wahid, The Black Agenda Group; and
- Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa, La Cumbre.
Barnhart said neighborhood groups also will be consulted.
“There’s no question this group will be going to the community as part of its work. … You can’t just announce a solution if you have not involved the people who are your target population. This isn’t going to work unless we do have real people at the table, and I promise you they will be.”
The pandemic exposed generational and regional divides. While plenty of attention was paid to the needs of city students and their families, people in rural areas also lack reliable high-speed access.
“This is something that should have happened a long time ago,” Barnhart said. “It took a pandemic. I’m grateful we’re getting going.”
She said federal and state money is being made available for broadband and the county has to be in position to apply.
She said the task force has scheduled its first meeting for April 6. She said a goal is to identify a project that can be completed by the end of the year, even if the county “can’t flip the switch on broadband” by that time.