BY NATASHA PIÑON5 HOURS AGO
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Working from “home” in a parking lot. Job interviews on laggy Zoom calls. Students trying to log onto class from a cell phone. For all of the already devastating and bitterly unequal impacts of the pandemic, a gap in internet and technology access, also known as the digital divide, has consistently worsened amid what was an already dire situation.
Here’s what you need to know about the digital divide, its impact throughout the pandemic, and where we might go from here.
What’s the digital divide?
Angela Siefer, executive director of the (NDIA), a broadband access organization, who has been working on matters concerning community technology since the mid ’90s, says the digital divide refers to the fact that some people lack access to the necessary technology for fully participating in modern, daily life.
In Siefer’s telling, it’s important to keep a wide definition of the digital divide because the specific “divides” with respect to the internet and technology change constantly. “As time moves forward and technology keeps changing, we’re going to create new divides so we need to recognize that that’s a truth and prepare for it,” she explains.
For instance, some of Siefer’s early work involved providing people access to computer labs, and simply training them on how to use a computer, a far cry from the necessary tech and training needed to close the digital divide today.
Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides media and technology recommendations to parents and educators who has also worked on connectivity for vulnerable populations in previous jobs, sees things similarly. She maintains the digital divide isn’t just about lacking connectivity or proper devices, and thinking about and defining the digital divide should reflect this. To be adequately connected to technology, “you need to connect communities to the appropriate supports they need to effectively utilize these devices and this connectivity,” she says.
Providing this support involves thinking of two things: “digital equity” and “digital inclusion.” “Digital equity,” defined as full, equal access to information and communication technologies for everyone, is the ultimate goal, Siefer explains. To reach full digital equity, we need to utilize strategies of digital inclusion, she adds.
To that end, affordable home broadband and access to proper devices are just the starting blocks of digital inclusion efforts, Fazlullah explains. Reaching the goal of digital equity would also require adequate IT support, digital literacy skills and technology training, accessible language availability for tech resources, among other forms of support, Siefer and Fazlullah explain.
Siefer and Fazlullah argue these efforts are deeply necessarybecause technology touches almost all basic facets of modern life, from work to healthcare to education. Not having internet access and adequate tech devices means exclusion from vital aspects of quite literally being alive.
With respect to employment, those living within the digital divide lack access to remote work, and it’s harder for them to access potential job postings or listings without reliable internet access, Fazlullah explains. It also becomes a major hindrance to education and retraining educational programs. This was once called the “homework gap,” in reference to the difficulty of completing homework without internet access, but amid pandemic-induced distance learning, this gap now often encompasses all schooling, she notes.
Fazlullah says it’s also difficult to engage with social services and other government services, like health safety alerts from governmental organizations, and to participate in civic life, like staying up to date on local political news or getting access to grassroots activism or campaigning opportunities. On top of that, for organizations or governments trying to reach vulnerable populations within their communities, it becomes harder to effectively deliver services or support programs to these populations when the internet is not an option, she explains, citing the difficulties many have experienced in accessing COVID vaccine information as one recent example.
It’s difficult to discern how much of the country is affected by the digital divide: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated in 2020 that 21 million Americans lack broadband access, but have placed the figure much higher. Siefer adds that those involved with broadband issues know the federal maps of where broadband exists are unreliable. As New York Times reporter Cecilia Kang has said, when explaining why the faulty map exists: “The internet providers are overreporting where their service reaches, and the Federal Communications Commission has allowed them to get away with it for years.”
But for now, we still don’t have data conveying the full extent of the problem. “There’s just a dearth of data on the digital divide,” Fazlullah explains. Some of the most concrete stats about the pandemic and the digital divide, however, have come from observing the gap in schools. “Schools have become these reservoirs of information about the connectivity needs of their student body and their families,” she explains, since schools had an obligation to actually get devices and internet to their students, and therefore learned about what digital inclusion efforts were working within their own communities.
A joint, multi-part released in January 2021 by Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group, in collaboration with EducationSuperHighway and the Southern Education Foundation, found that around 16 million students in K-12 public schools are living in the digital divide, and the problem is most prevalent among Black, Latinx, and Native American students and rural communities.
There are two main reasons the digital divide exists and persists, Fazlullah explains. The first is cost. “Across all of the other critical services they need to pay for, oftentimes connectivity to the internet is the one thing that falls off,” she says. This could be the case for a family living in, say, New York City, where broadband is widely available, that can’t afford to access it, or can only afford a plan that isn’t fast enough for their needs, like multiple family members needing to connect to remote school and work. The NDIA, for instance, points to analysis of U.S. Census data that found that there are more households where broadband infrastructure (which refers to the networks behind deploying internet access) is available, yet people don’t subscribe, than households where the infrastructure is unavailable.
Yet even knowing that, Siefer maintains we still need more information to know just how unaffordable home internet service can be, noting there’s a lack of data on what it costs to have the internet. While online searches can get you close, and show you introductory broadband rates, she explains that when trying to gather those rates together into an average cost, “it can get a little unclear, and localities really need to have this reliable data in order to compare themselves to other communities … like an apples-to-apples comparison of what you’re getting for that money.”
Infrastructure remains the other primary hurdle. Despite improvements in closing the gaps in internet access between rural and non-rural America, as recently as 2018, Pew Research Center found that nearly one in four adults living in rural areas in the U.S. said access to high-speed internet is a “major problem” in their community.
While more recent data from Pew Research Center in 2019 shows rural Americans are now only 12 percentage points less likely than the rest of America to have broadband at home, the digital divide in rural communities still exists, in large part because broadband providers aren’t incentivised to invest in communities with low population densities.
Fazlullah notes without sturdy infrastructure, people are left with slow connections that can’t meet the ways in which people actually need to use the internet nowadays, whether that’s video calls or even just getting your email to load in a reasonable time frame.
“Wherever a community is unable to connect to robust infrastructure, even if you had the cost support in place, you’ve got this secondary barrier that’s preventing you from having those households connect,” she adds.
How has the pandemic changed things?
The pandemic raised both the stakes and general understanding of the digital divide, Siefer and Fazlullah explain. With the bulk of day-to-day life moved online for so many people, the digital divide now extends far beyond its previous manifestations.
One of the most immediately recognizable examples is distance learning. Siefer points to viral photos of kids doing their homework in parking lots outside of fast food restaurants, and, indeed, that’s what day-to-day life has looked like for many kids and families, she says. And for those who do have some level of internet access at home, but perhaps don’t have strong enough broadband to effectively participate in Zoom classes, they’d still fall into the digital divide.
“When you think about a fourth grader, sitting in front of a screen, trying to engage in class, if it’s going out or if it’s dropping and it’s not working, there’s only so many times that fourth grader is going to log in again and try again,” Fazlullah explains. “It’s already really frustrating to an adult, but it can really stop that day’s worth of education in its tracks.”
A survey distributed by Pew Research Center back in April, for instance, found that around one third (36%) of parents with lower incomes said their children would be unable to complete their schoolwork because they lack a computer at home. (Comparatively, only 4 percent of upper income parents said the same.)
And the digital divide touches far more than just distance learning: Those living in the digital divide but now working remotely, or those looking for work, have also turned to for internet access. “We can’t let ourselves be OK with a child or anyone going to a parking lot to do their homework or fill out a job application,” Siefer says.
In light of COVID-19, access to telemedicine has become increasingly important as a method of receiving healthcare without potentially exposing yourself to the virus while visiting a doctor in person, and Fazlullah cites this as another example of one of the many ways those in the digital divide have encountered new disadvantages amid the pandemic. For those who cannot access medical care remotely, they could end up missing out on critical care during an especially crucial time (read: a pandemic).
There are other health-related concerns, too. A lack of understanding about how to use the internet and access certain websites has impacted the vaccine rollout, and made it “a barrier to reach those communities that have been harder hit by the pandemic,” Fazlullah explains.
In short, just as it did before the pandemic, the digital divide has continued to seep into nearly all of the elemental aspects of day-to-day life.
How has it been addressed?
In response to the pervasiveness of the digital divide throughout the pandemic, a number of solutions — some innovative, many stopgap — have popped up. Most short term solutions to the digital divide popped up at a local level, Siefer and Fazlullah note, with Siefer adding that many of these have focused on the more tangible aspects of the digital divide, such as distributing devices to students in need, as opposed to increasing broadband accessibility by expanding infrastructure and affordability.
For instance, school districts and other groups across the country deployed WiFi buses to act as hotspots for students and families living in the digital divide. “Hotspots are a great band aid,” Siefer explains.
Fazlullah and Siefer note that mobile hotspots can be particularly useful for those who are unhoused, yet even then, a hotspot’s effectiveness will depend on having the overall connectivity access and infrastructure to give people the level of connectivity that’s actually promised, Fazlullah explains.
“The thing we have to get to, though, is, ‘How do we get beyond WiFi on buses?’ and that involves understanding broadband, and understanding the market and understanding what your choices are,” Siefer says.
“We can’t let ourselves be OK with a child, or anyone, going to a parking lot to do their homework or fill out a job application”
While they’ve been glad to see local organizations implement stopgap solutions on the fly, they really want to see the federal government step up to the task. Outside of more local solutions, Fazlullah and Siefer note there’s been very little support from the federal government, outside of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. It was approved for implementation in February by the FCC to assist households unable or struggling to pay for internet access.
Under it, eligible households get up to a $50 per month discount on broadband service, while those eligible on Tribal lands get up to $75 per month. Fazlullah and Siefer are both happy about that support, but ultimately want to see many more digital inclusion efforts from all levels of leadership, including federal policy makers.
For instance, a longterm federally-funded subsidized broadband service for low-income families is still not a reality. The Emergency Broadband Program consists of $3.2 billion of funding, which will be available either six months after the end of the pandemic, or when the funds run out, which could be earlier.
Where to go from here
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that knowledge of these issues – both for policy makers and everyday folks – won’t go away after the pandemic subsides, according to Siefer and Fazlullah.
We now have more awareness, for instance, about the importance of widespread, functional broadband access for everyone in the country, Fazlullah notes. The pandemic revealed just how many places the digital divide could pop up — be it access to work, school, healthcare, or more — and how detrimental it can be for those living in it, she adds.
“For a long time, I think we have failed to really update the definition of broadband, and update our benchmarks and our goals, to actually match the reality of how people use the internet,” Fazlullah explains, noting that the federal government’s official definition of the broadband benchmark, 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, is “sorely out of date.”
Post-pandemic, she wants to see that upped so it becomes a “true benchmark” for deploying broadband infrastructure. In Fazlullah’s telling, broadband infrastructure needs to be deployed in a way “that’s actually able to meet today’s needs and able to be efficiently updated to meet tomorrow’s needs as well,” which will require the government to update and fund a modernized broadband infrastructure. (The findings from the Common Sense Media digital divide study defined “future-proof” networks as capable of 100/100 Mbps, for instance.)
“For us to make forward thinking decisions about how to create a resilient social safety net, to make sure we have resilient access to other government resources, access to civic life, all of this requires us to think about deploying robust access to broadband,” she explains.
Siefer has similar visions for a more digitally equitable U.S. in the future. She wants to see federal funding for a permanent broadband benefit, as well as funding for the kind of digital literacy and tech support necessary for actually getting everyone full access to technology and the internet.
“I think the goal is: Let’s celebrate those local solutions, share more information about how those local solutions are working, so that we can have even more of them, help folks work together, and then identify and create those federal resources to support the local work,” Siefer says.
All the while, both Siefer and Fazlullah are optimistic that everything revealed by the pandemic will push policy makers and other stakeholders in the digital divide to address the problem more aggressively and comprehensively.
“If a library director didn’t quite get digital equity issues before, and gets those now, that library director isn’t going to forget what they know. They’re going to keep working on this because they know it’s important,” Siefer says.