Could The Digital Divide Unite Us?
from the the-game-has-changed dept
The digital divide is not only a rural problem. The digital divide is a problem that unites us across rural, urban, suburban and tribal lands. It is a bipartisan problem. The solution must be multi-pronged: affordable ubiquitous broadband with the appropriate devices and trusted digital literacy and technical support.
Last March, as the pandemic forced all kinds of essential activities online, communities across the U.S. woke to the reality that large numbers of their residents couldn’t access the internet because they lacked the necessary broadband connections, equipment and/or skills. Schoolchildren and college students couldn’t participate in online classes; patients with chronic illnesses couldn’t visit their doctors via telemedicine; seniors living alone were cut off from service programs, faith, and even family support. Companies found that many employees lacked the connectivity to work where they lived. Whole families found themselves in library parking lots, using Wi-Fi for online tasks they couldn’t perform at home.
Suddenly there was a widespread realization that the digital divide is everywhere — not just out in the country, but in the biggest cities and many of their suburbs as well.
Yes, there were (and are) many families in rural communities struggling to deal with online learning, work and social life because the available internet services where they live are far too slow to support them. But there are also millions of American households whose communities have excellent access to high-speed broadband service from one, two or three providers — but at a monthly cost that those households just can’t afford. Many of those same households don’t have computers — for the same reason, i.e. affordability — or have never had a chance to develop the basic digital skills to use the technology.
Enter the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the $2.3 trillion COVID relief and government funding package, which includes several provisions that address broadband deployment and digital inclusion, particularly broadband affordability. The new law allocates $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will reimburse internet service providers for providing broadband service and devices to low-income households. Additionally, the Act lists digital inclusion and broadband adoption as activities eligible for funding within “Tribal Connectivity” and the “Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives.”
While there are still many questions as to how the broadband sections will be implemented, one thing is certain – we now have Congressional recognition that the affordability barrier to digital equity must be addressed.
For years, the conversation and advocacy around the digital divide was itself divided. In part, due to the inconsistency of what is meant by “digital divide.” According to the 2019 U.S. Census, 36 million households do not subscribe to a wireline broadband service. 26 million of these households are in urban areas. 10 million are in rural areas. The lower a household’s income, the less likely they are to consistently subscribe to a wireline broadband service.
In addition to rural deployment solutions, we must:
establish a permanent broadband benefit
increase access to affordable computers
increase access to digital literacy and technical support
improve broadband mapping including residential cost data, and
support local/state digital inclusion planning
It has been over a decade since the federal government has supported broadband access and use for disadvantaged communities. The current emergency support for digital inclusion is temporary. This pandemic has resulted in local innovative and collaborative solutions addressing the digital divide. Now is the time for innovation and collaboration at the federal level.
Might the digital divide unite us?
Angela Siefer is the Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. She has been working in the field we now call digital inclusion since 1997. She has helped physically set up computer labs in underserved areas, managed broadband conferences, conducted research, managed digital inclusion programs, assisted with the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Adoption Toolkit, testified before Congress and more. Government Technology Magazine named Angela one of their Top 25 Doers, Dreams, and Drivers of 2019.
Bill Callahan is the Research and Policy Advisor for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance while also directing the Cleveland-based Connect Your Community. He has been active in local and national efforts to promote digital empowerment for low income people and communities since 1996, when he organized Cleveland’s first neighborhood technology center and home computer ownership program.
Sean Davis is a graduate of George Washington Law and Manager of Research and Policy for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Prior to joining NDIA, Sean worked with the Wikimedia Foundation where he researched content moderation laws and the national Consumers League where he advocated for a federal privacy bill.