Monroe County Executive Adam Bello has appointed a bipartisan task force to recommend solutions for bridging the digital divide.
Nearly one-fifth of households in the city of Rochester and one-third of rural households in Monroe County aren't connected to the internet, according to Census data.
Bello wants the county to be a leader in addressing the disparities by offering free or low-cost high-speed broadband service to those who need it.
County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a member of the task force, feels a sense of urgency to eliminate inequities which she said were further exposed during the coronavirus pandemic when many people were forced to work and learn from home.
"Everyone has a right to high-speed and affordable broadband," Barnhart said. "If we want people to fully take advantage of the opportunities available in education and the workforce, we've got to be able to meet this need."
Barnhart, who represents the 21st Legislative District, which covers part of the city of Rochester, believes the biggest barrier for urban residents is affordability.
"We know that internet is available, but for $50, $60 a month," she added. "That is out of reach for many households. The issues in the rural parts of our county are that some of them just aren't wired."
Nonprofits, such as the Rochester Area Community Foundation, have provided mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and other devices to underserved communities, including students in the Rochester City School District, but Simeon Banister, RACF's vice president of community programs, said that was not intended to be a long-term fix.
"We went into that eyes wide open recognizing that it was a temporary solution in the midst of a crisis," he said.
Banister, also a member of the task force, believes the historic level of federal funding that will be distributed to communities for coronavirus relief could be used to address internet access inequities quickly.
"That's what's exciting," he said. "We actually have the resources so we can have this conversation about leveraging those dollars to get this done and not just kind of talk and talk and talk and talk and talk."
The task force will be led by Ana Liss, Monroe County's director of planning and development.
Other members of the panel include:
- Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.
- Rochester City Schools Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small.
- Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Duffy.
- Monroe County Legislature Majority Leader Steve Brew.
- Hanif Abdul-Wahid from the Black Agenda.
- Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa from LaCumbre.
- Monroe County Legislators Howard Maffucci and Jackie Smith.
- Rochester City Councilmember Mary Lupien.
- Shore Foundation COO Robert Poltrino.