The digital divide in America has never been more apparent than it has in the face of COVID-19. Disparities which already existed due to economic and geographic factors have only become further exacerbated in recent months.
As more individuals work remotely and families navigate distance learning for their children, the need for access to broadband internet in all areas of the U.S. is abundantly clear. The question now begs to be answered: should internet access be a basic human right?
The Digital Divide, Explained
It's estimated that in the U.S. today, there are approximately 42 million Americans without a reliable internet connection. During the coronavirus pandemic, these individuals have been unable to access work, school, and basic necessities from home.
The internet has served as a lifeline to these services, and to much-needed information about COVID-19. But those living outside of urban communities either have to rely on shaky rural internet providers or go to great lengths, skirting stay-at-home orders, in order to access WiFi wherever possible.
"What we’re seeing is, across society, not just one group that is left behind but multiple millions of Americans for multiple reasons."
Jonathan Sallet, Senior Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, explains, "These are problems that existed for a long time but what this crisis has done is fast-forward us into a broadband future... This crisis has shown us that we have multiple digital divides and that they threaten to become a digital chasm - a really big problem as broadband becomes absolutely essential to participation in American society."
Americans in rural parts of the country have an especially difficult time gaining access to internet services. Research shows that 37% of rural Americans have no internet connection at home. While this percentage has improved over the past decade, rural Americans are still currently 12% less likely to have internet access than Americans overall.
These statistics show that the lack of rural internet service is a serious issue which needs to be addressed, and many in urban areas are severely affected by the digital divide as well. Geographic challenges clearly play a role, but economic factors are just as crucial.
Sallet explains, "Low income people in urban and rural and suburban America are not able to afford broadband. What we're seeing is, across society, not just one group that is left behind but multiple millions of Americans for multiple reasons."
"These are problems that existed for a long time but what this crisis has done is fast-forward us into a broadband future."
Whether in rural Kentucky or urban Michigan, socioeconomic disadvantage plays a key role in the digital divide that exists between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Nowhere is this more apparent than in Detroit, which suffers from one of the sharpest divides in the country due to lack of affordability. As many as 40% of Detroit residents do not have internet connection in their homes.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect all over the world, it's also forcing people to take action against important issues like these which are long overdue for a solution.
Closing the Chasm in Detroit
When stay-at-home orders went into effect, students across the country faced new disadvantages. While many school districts focused on short-term solutions, like getting tablets to students for the remainder of the semester, the Detroit public school system set to work on a plan to get students and their families connected for good.
Pamela Moore, President and CEO of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, says, "Up to 90% of our families did not have either a device or internet connection that would allow them to access the online curriculum."
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So in June, Detroit public schools began sending out tablets to every public school student in the district, totalling 51,000 devices. Each tablet comes with a free, six-month internet plan and tech support for a year. After the free period, families can either transition to a low-cost internet plan or request additional support from the school district.
Moore explains, "This was always on the long, long list of things to do... but a 23 million dollar price tag is nothing to blink at, and so without this crisis I do not think the call to action would have looked quite the way it looks now."
How can solutions like these be applied at a nationwide scale? Connecting 40 million Americans to broadband internet is a challenge that will take years of work, massive funding, and vast political support. But until the digital divide is closed, the unconnected will remain particularly vulnerable in times of crisis.
While the threat of COVID-19 will eventually subside, millions of Americans will not forget the circumstances which made this period especially difficult, and how it did so disproportionately to disadvantaged populations.
The digital divide is fundamentally dangerous, and the pandemic has only highlighted the issue. As we become increasingly reliant upon the internet for a number of critical components of our lives, we need to begin considering the possibility that internet access should be a basic human right.