At the beginning of the pandemic, as companies sent their workforces home to work remotely at the same time children and their schoolteachers began conducting classes online, one thing became clear: technology is not yet a right but a privilege.
Despite technology being a modern necessity for engagement with society and new opportunities, access to technology and high-speed internet still proves problematic for some communities.
You have likely heard this referred to as the digital divide or internet inequality because the access gap often runs along class and racial lines. While there is no clear line drawn, as is the case with overall segregation, the Pew Research Center reports that access to broadband internet for Black and Hispanic households lags behind whites. While smartphones are closing the gap through “smartphone-only” internet users, there remain disadvantages for those without a traditional computer and access to high-speed internet.
According to Pew, the gap becomes even wider when looking at income, with 43% of lower-income households not having broadband access. This discrepancy is not only a major problem for local governments and public services as they seek ways to help people during the pandemic but also for employers, businesses and the education system.
Scope of the Issue
Addressing the digital divide is complex, according to David Witkowski, CEO of Oku Solutions and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The scope of the situation in the United States varies widely and takes many forms based on the geographic, demographic and socioeconomic profile of the community affected.
- Access – does any form of connectivity exist?
- Suitability – is the connectivity sufficient to serve the usage needs of the community’s members?
- Affordability – can community members afford the installation and ongoing cost of connectivity?
- Digital literacy – can the community understand how to use connectivity to accomplish tasks?
“The digital divide is therefore manifested in a variety of ways, and thus challenges effective creation of policy and funding solutions,” Witkowski said. “In rural areas, challenges are typically rooted in access and suitability – the physical infrastructure either doesn’t exist or isn’t powerful enough to support modern online access activities. We can address access and suitability via low-earth-orbit satellite networks, but then we would need to address affordability and literacy. While specific solutions may be too expensive for some communities, programs like the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, as well as various state and federal funding bills, may be able to offset affordability in whole or part.”
Urban areas typically have better access and suitability profiles, although dwellings in some economically challenged areas may not be wired for broadband even if infrastructure exists nearby. As Witkowski notes, “when it comes to broadband, a connection gap of 20 feet might as well be 20 miles.”
Wiring challenges are widespread in older neighborhoods where buildings were constructed of stone masonry or in public housing where modifications such as wiring can trigger mandatory code compliance upgrades unrelated to broadband. Complying with local codes related to lead paint or asbestos mitigation can easily double or triple the cost of a broadband wiring retrofit project.
For this reason, addressing connectivity gaps is increasingly done with wireless technologies, as they’re simpler to install and require less mitigation around construction and code compliance issues.
In practice, the best entities to address digital divide challenges are local governments, nonprofit organizations and community organizations because they understand how the digital divide is manifesting on the ground and which challenges need to be addressed.
As COVID-19 hit communities, however, the struggle to address these issues challenged governments on all levels to help citizens meet their internet needs. As a result, privately held companies stepped in to help where they could.
For internet service providers, bridging the digital divide makes sense from a business standpoint. The issue is nothing new, as researchers have highlighted it for decades. As the largest broadband provider in the country, Comcast (No. 6 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021) deployed its Internet Essentials program more than a decade ago. The program has grown over time, connecting more than 10 million people. However, despite the resources available, the program has also highlighted some of the reasons the digital divide still exists and why it remains a tricky problem to solve.
“First, and most importantly, the biggest challenge is a mix of issues we call relevance: many people lack digital skills and the ability to use the internet; some are fearful of using it,” says Charlie Douglas, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Comcast. “Some are skeptical that home broadband internet can provide them any value. It’s a complex issue, and there are lots of different populations with different needs. Seniors, for example, need to learn digital skills differently than, say, young people. So, we need skills programs tailored for different demographics, and we have worked with thousands of nonprofits and given away hundreds of millions of dollars in grants so they can train and reach the people in their communities in authentic and personalized ways.”
Last year, the company announced Project UP, a new ten-year $1-billion commitment toward combating digital equity issues well into the future. While there are some things that no ISP can influence, such as the lack of a working computer, they can prevent the cost of an internet connection from becoming a major burden for many eligible low-income families. The company has kept Internet Essentials to just $9.95 per month, and the price has not changed since the program’s launch despite service speeds increasing. With the Affordable Connectivity Program coming into effect, much of the cost barrier is also diminishing.
The Ongoing Impact of the Pandemic
COVID-19 has highlighted the need for more accessible broadband and has everyone from policymakers to CEOs thinking of ways to help address it. In the end, Douglas believes it’s too complex for efforts to not be collaborative between public and private partnerships.
“No single government program will be able to close the digital divide, just as no one company can close it alone either,” he said. “We need more corporate support, public/private partnerships and people working together collaboratively to connect the unconnected and provide the tools and skills they need to use the internet to benefit their lives — for remote work, distance learning, telemedicine, online shopping, online banking, entertainment, keeping in touch with family and friends, starting a business, you name it. The world has become even more digital as a result of the pandemic.”
The IEEE is part of the framework, bringing together experts to coordinate programs like the Future Networks Initiative (FNI).
Witkowski heads FNI’s Deployment Working Group, which works at the intersection between the telecommunications industry and local governments to help build understanding and cooperation around the efficient deployment and extension of the nation’s cellular data networks, including 5G.
The FNI is also home to the Connecting the Unconnected (CTU) working group, which looks more directly at the challenges around the digital divide.
“CTU and Deployment often interact, as the challenges they identify are often rooted in practical engineering that shows up at the deployment level,” he said. “IEEE creates the Standards that enable safe and economically efficient technologies to grow and become affordable. Everyone is familiar with Wi-Fi, for example, which is governed by the IEEE802.11 family of standards. The nearly universal implementation of Wi-Fi in technology we use every day has driven the effective cost of that technology to nearly zero.”
Douglas pointed out that as a result of the pandemic, the issue of broadband adoption has gained national and even international prominence, with everyone hoping it becomes a thing of the past.
“We’re very optimistic that the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and soon, the Affordable Connectivity Program, will go a long way to boost connectivity numbers overall, but we can’t let that boost make us complacent,” Douglas said. “We still need to more comprehensive solutions to address the other barriers that keep people from connecting to the internet at home. What the pandemic has taught us is that we are all in this together, and we are confident that we can solve it together.”