Salt Lake City could use COVID-19 funds to improve digital equity

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces a new City Connect computer lab and Wi-Fi access point at the Sorenson Unity Center on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Salt Lake City is operating two free computer labs with Wi-Fi access on the city’s west side to help people stay connected during the pandemic. But Mayor Erin Mendenhall said this is only the beginning of the city’s digital equity efforts.

City Connect launched earlier this month as a pilot project with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The city and church jointly operate a computer lab at a stake center in Rose Park. That program will be extended through the end of September with expanded operational hours. On Monday, Mendenhall announced a second City Connect lab at the Sorenson Unity Center. Computer access and free Wi-Fi will continue at the center indefinitely.

“So much of our day-to-day lives rely on the internet, from taking the Census to taking a test for school, registering to vote, paying your bills and so many other interactions,” the mayor said at a news conference, adding that the City Connect labs were “beginning steps” in expanding Wi-Fi access.

Of Salt Lake City households, 13.3% don’t have internet access and 5.4% don’t have a computer, according to U.S. Census information. City officials say the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the digital divide as many programs and services are now only available online.

Last week, Mendenhall’s administration requested a $75,000 budget amendment to add more free Wi-Fi hot spots. The funds would come from money funneled to the city through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), but city officials had looked to improve digital equity before the pandemic.

“This will be a continuing project,” said Aaron Bentley, the city’s chief information officer. “This isn’t just a response to COVID-19.”

The city already operates a Wi-Fi network across 33 sites, but those connection points are only for “internal city business,” Bentley said. The CARES Act dollars will allow the city to beef up its networking equipment, beaming Wi-Fi from equipment atop Ensign Peak, and create more internet access points that are available to the public. Bentley said the city plans to open three of those sites to start.

“Now, those sites could be as big as a whole park or as small as a building,” Bentley said. “We will prioritize [sites] based on [improving] digital equity, but technology can span across the whole city.”

Bentley acknowledged that most people can access the internet using smartphones and cellular networks, but noted that low-income families might be on pay-as-you-go or other limited plans.

The new free connection points won’t necessarily be on city-owned properties. The city is looking for nonprofits and other partners who want to team up and expand the initiative.

“Anyone that’s willing to help us help the community, I’m willing to talk to them and work with the mayor,” Bentley said.

The mayor and City Council are currently mulling a Digital Equity Policy to guide the city’s efforts in closing the digital divide. The council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the policy at its next formal meeting on Sept. 1.

City Connect free Wi-Fi centers:

Rose Park

Address: 760 N. 1200 West

Hours: 9-11 a.m. Mondays; 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays.

Ten computers available for unlimited sessions.

Sorenson Unity Center

Address: 1383 S. 900 West

Hours: 12-5:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Outdoor Wi-Fi available 5 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Six computers available for 45-minute sessions.