The Tech Policy Greenhouse is an online symposium where experts tackle the most difficult policy challenges facing innovation and technology today. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, where every decision involves tradeoffs and unintended consequences, so we've gathered a wide variety of voices to help dissect existing policy proposals and better inform new ones.

Digital Redlining: ISPs Widening The Digital Divide

from the mind-the-gap dept

As school districts are facing the new school year under conditions drastically changed by COVID-19, the digital divide is deepening education inequality in the US.

Many families struggle to meet the requirements of remote schooling as millions of students around the US lack access to a broadband internet connection. We’ve learned in pandemic times that our health depends on those of others and we are only as strong as our weakest links. Still, inequalities arising from the lack of internet and technological access mean that online learning poses insurmountable challenges to many households worldwide, leaving many children behind.

Rachel Cooper, a teacher in rural Sacramento Valley reported to the Atlantic, “It’s rough, some kids are using their phones to log into class, but the screens are too small to do work on. Some kids’ internet cuts out in the middle of class, and others don’t log on at all. I’ve had several students already say that they were really nervous they were going to fall farther behind in a specific subject because they think distance learning is going to be really difficult.”

Many Households Left Behind

While the US is considered to be at the forefront of technological innovation, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that 21 million Americans lack a high-speed internet connection. In fact, researchers at Broadband Now found that the actual number is double the FCC’s figure. The disparity in the FCC’s numbers is a direct result of relying on internet service providers (ISPs) to self-report. This allows providers to claim they serve the population of an entire block even if they serve just one household on that block.

The right to internet access was historically never prioritized by the US government, and was mostly left to be managed by private ISPs. ISPs gained even more freedom under the Trump administration, when federal regulation got looser. In 2017, net neutrality regulations were abolished, allowing broadband companies to decide where to build out their infrastructure and how much to charge for their services. This was the reversal of the 2015 decision by the Obama administration to have stronger oversight over ISPs and it generally reflected the Trump administration’s view that regulation by the market will lead to better results and yield more innovation.

This decision, however, largely led to systemic issues like digital redlining, a practice of creating and perpetuating inequities between already marginalized groups specifically through the use of digital technologies. An example of digital redlining is when ISPs deliberately won’t serve certain geographical areas and low-income neighborhoods because they are not considered profitable.

“Unlike rural areas, where providers receive a subsidy to serve a high-cost area, no subsidies exist to encourage providers to serve or upgrade urban neighborhoods despite the perceived lack of profit,” Gene Kimmelman, senior advisor at the think tank Public Knowledge testified. “Either we should build new programs explicitly designed to create competing providers in these underserved neighborhoods or legislation should require universal service standards or other anti-redlining measures enforced at either the state level or by the FCC.”

Some of the unconnected families live in areas that are not serviced by providers, but others simply can’t afford to pay for an internet connection. The average cost of internet service in the United States is about $68 per month (compared to Europe’s average of $44) which is simply a cost that not all households can bear.

Short-term Solutions for Bridging the Gap

At the advent of COVID-19 and remote schooling, many school districts organized Wi-Fi-equipped buses to drive around areas where disconnected students live. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Public Schools with the help of the City of Albuquerque were providing “drive-up mobile Wi-Fi units at a number of APS schools and other public locations.” These drive-up mobile units were usable up to a 100 feet radius, which meant that internet users could remain in their cars to aid social distancing.

Some school districts have also tried to subsidize Internet access for disconnected students, often with funds from the government's $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid package under the CARES Act. Additionally, many school districts have purchased and distributed 4G wireless hotspots or paid for discounted wired Internet services for low-income families, such as Comcast's $9.95 per month Internet Essentials package, which now connects approximately 200,000 students. However, these efforts are mostly initiated by school districts and ISPs “free” offers are usually limited and capped, thus sub-par to the realistic broadband needs of students learning online.

In Need of Long-term Regulation

These measures taken by school districts are good short-term fixes, they will not solve the digital divide for the future when online schooling will be a common practice.

Long-term solutions need federal or municipal investments and have to come from non-commercial efforts. For example, Congress could encourage municipal broadband to intervene where private companies do not see worthwhile business opportunities. However, competition between ISPs and municipal broadband networks is limited by state law in more than half of US states, and municipal broadband can not be set up in areas that are already served by one private ISP.

This means that many communities are left with ISPs that provide poor quality and expensive services because of the lack of competition, and are unable to pursue municipal broadband because their area is considered “served”. Some states also require municipal broadband services to match prices of the local ISP, further limiting competition for private providers.

Global Outlook

According to a new UNICEF report, 463 million children globally were unable to access remote learning when schools closed due to COVID-19. The report highlights significant inequality across regions: sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected, where at least half of all students cannot be reached with remote learning.

The governments of South Korea and Sweden are building national broadband infrastructures and letting ISPs use them. In the US, essential services like broadband connections are left to be managed by private ISPs, leading to whole areas and neighborhoods with no or poor internet connection. What will be the long-term systemic consequences of children in rural and low-income households struggling to keep up with online curricula?

Andrea Kelemen is a Berlin-based writer and content strategist exploring topics related to technology ethics and the cultural effects of digital media for FairShake. IRL, she likes swimming, dancing and deconstructing objectifying dualisms with both human and non-human agents.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: broadband, competition, digital divide, redlinining


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    ECA (profile), 17 Nov 2020 @ 2:29pm

    Easy.

    DEMAND that all cell phones allow Full tethering.
    So that students can Connect computers or even other Android devices to the system and get the services.
    AND no over charging.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 18 Nov 2020 @ 1:09am

      Re: Easy.

      DEMAND that all cell phones allow Full tethering. So that students can Connect computers or even other Android devices to the system and get the services.

      ISP Schmoe - Sure thing! We'll just tack on another charge or two here...

      AND no over charging.

      ISP Schmoe - Ooooooo - big problem. Sorry, not gonna happen.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Herb Sluftwm, manager of Linux windows, 17 Nov 2020 @ 4:16pm

    "DEMAND that all cell phones allow Full tethering." - That's OUT

    First, I'm NOT responding to the inhuman "ECA". -- It's dropped the runs of periods, anybody notice? Perhaps it got a new terminal so that aren't needed to jog the Teletype back from upper-casing. But it still randomly upper-cases and is still just below comprehensible as if trying to waste your time. -- Never more than glance at "ECA", it's a textual basilisk to stop your thoughts.

    Anyhoo, my speed-read glance at "ECA's" first sentence caught that it's blithely proposing exactly what Masnick in the next piece hopes will become law: a state cannot mandate software because it's compelling speech. -- That won't become law, Masnick wrong as usual, as even "ECA" thinks it's good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 17 Nov 2020 @ 5:04pm

      Re: "DEMAND that all cell phones allow Full tethering." - That's

      If the corps cant supply internet access to everyone, as they have been paid to do. Jump in and take another feature they already have and use it to do the job.
      Why not?
      Its entertaining that everyone has access to cellphones and they have a better coverage then Internet does.
      Using tethering Would force them to acknowledge that the cellphone system isnt strong enough to handle everyone using Wireless Access(which is a good chance they are trying to do). Show them that they are lagging behind most other nations even with 4g. Push hard on that system and it will break.
      The other think, is that The cell system Must have major wiring to the antennas. And they Should be Part of the backbone. And Why isnt it out tot he last miles?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Herb Sluftwm, manager of Linux windows, 17 Nov 2020 @ 4:25pm

    Still begging after months. Evidently no "new business model",

    after blithely telling multi-billion corporations to ignore pirating and find new ways, you can't even get enough to run one tiny web-site of mostly text?

    We do not have a giant corporation behind us

    NO, you state that you're a Silicon Valley propaganda shill:

    https://copia.is/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/sponsors.png

    Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets.

    You usually imply are a "journalist", and I believe stated so in the defamation case (or that would). Most of the time you're just a "blogger", as when it comes to ethics such as disclosing your sources of income and entangling associations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      AC Unknown (profile), 17 Nov 2020 @ 8:42pm

      Re: Still begging after months. Evidently no "new business model

      And where's your proof? Stop pulling shit from your ass.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 17 Nov 2020 @ 11:34pm

        Re: Re: Still begging after months. Evidently no "new business m

        His proof is that Google has been mentioned somewhere, and since the version of this site he made up in his never criticises Google, this means something.

        He's been doing this for over a decade, he just switched from Mike having once been to Google campus to the publicly available image he keeps linking as his "evidence" of something (though he never says exactly what or how that above proves it).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          AC Unknown (profile), 18 Nov 2020 @ 8:17am

          Re: Re: Re: Still begging after months. Evidently no "new busine

          I know. I've been reading Techdirt since the SOPA debacle. I just like challenging idiots to provide proof of their allegations.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 17 Nov 2020 @ 11:32pm

      Re: Still begging after months. Evidently no "new business model

      "NO, you state that you're a Silicon Valley propaganda shill"

      I still love the fact that, 5 years later, you think that the presence of a single company on a list means that TD do 100% of that the company says, and that you're still dumb enough to treat a publicly available image hosted by the source you're attacking as some kind of "gotcha". I'm still waiting for you to explain what nefarious effect the MacArthur Foundation and Namecheap are pushing in your hallucinations.

      I wonder how many more years you will be pushing this comedy. It's like a Family Guy bit at this point - it's gone on so long it's not funny any more, but as you extend it it becomes hilarious again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    WutsInterWeb, 18 Nov 2020 @ 8:08am

    Heres an idea. How about send the kids back to school? Kids are at a miniscule risk from coronavirus. But I suppose it makes more hay for certain special interests who will never let any crisis go to waste.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt

The Tech Policy Greenhouse
is a special project by Techdirt,
with support from:

Essential Reading
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.