As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the first thing everyone did, naturally, was turn to technology. Students went back to school virtually, employees carried out their work from their own homes, and organizations held events online to keep people connected. The everyday world had gone digital.
Well, not entirely.
In late August, two elementary-school-aged girls sat cross-legged on the pavement of a Taco Bell parking lot in Salinas, California, with two laptops in front of them. The young girls were trying to access their coursework using the fast-food restaurant’s WiFi. A viral photo of this scene brought to light the issue of the growing digital divide during this pandemic. It is estimated that 15-16 million K-12 students required to learn remotely from home do not have an adequate internet connection or devices for distance learning.
These disparities in broadband connections primarily impact low-income families. American broadband rates are some of the most expensive in the world, mainly due to a lack of competition between internet service providers. These high rates have caused consumer access to recede. In addition, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s decision to roll back net neutrality in 2018 allowed broadband companies to impose higher prices on certain services and content.
Furthermore, Black, Hispanic, and Native American families are disproportionately affected by the digital divide. In order to qualify for internet access at home, consumers need to pass a credit check, and the credit score system is riddled with racial inequities. Consequently, communities of color are less likely to have access to home broadband.
During these past six months, reliance on technology has skyrocketed. The internet is no longer just a place for entertainment, but rather an essential part of our lives. It has become the only way 50 million students can access educational resources. Also, throughout this national emergency, much of America’s healthcare system has been forced to go digital. The coronavirus is transforming the way we live, learn, and work, and many believe that the changes will be permanent. It has led businesses to introduce new digital solutions, many of which are here to stay. But how can our world go digital and leave billions of people behind in the process? The FCC has launched programs meant to increase access to the internet for low-income families and schools, but these plans fail to sufficiently address the crisis. They are not enough to help vulnerable communities afford the kind of advanced connectivity required in today’s day and age.
The question remains: what can we do to fix this crisis? No student should have to go to a McDonald’s, Starbucks, or Taco Bell parking lot in order to do their homework or access school resources.
The digital divide is a manifestation of problems rooted deep in our economic development. We need to address and fix these issues in order to begin to close the gap. Solutions such as temporary devices and borrowing broadband devices from libraries are short-term fixes that should be paired with long-term strategies. Though the pandemic has expanded the digital divide, it was still an issue before the pandemic and will remain an issue after.
Proposals have been presented before Congress that would provide a monthly discount on broadband connectivity, but we need to push for more proposals like the Moving Forward Act that would make such discounts permanent. Students can help by contacting their local elected officials to bring this issue to their attention. Governments and companies need to work together to focus on alleviating the disproportionate hardships that marginalized communities face attempting to access this necessity that so many of us take for granted. Affordability for technology and connection needs to be increased. Congress has the opportunity to ensure that all Americans are online during this national emergency, and should focus on taking steps towards making sure that the internet remains available to all.
The coronavirus pandemic will eventually be conquered, but it has forever changed the education, employment, and business landscape, which will remain inaccessible to millions unless we bridge the digital divide.
Sources: Salina students seen using Taco Bell for internet access: https://kion546.com/news/2020/08/26/salinas-students-seen-using-taco-bell-for-internet-access/
Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning (Common Sense Media report): https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/pdfs/common_sense_media_report_final_6_29_950am_web.pdf
America’s digital divide is an emergency: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/23/americas-digital-divide-is-an-emergency/
How to make broadband affordable and accessible for everyone: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/09/perspectives/broadband-internet-affordable-accessible/index.html