They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and arguably no picture says more about the realities of digital inequality than a viral photo disseminated across social media in late summer of 2020, about five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. The photo, tweeted by then-California Senate President Kevin de León (see below), captures a pair of unnamed schoolgirls seated on the pavement outside a Taco Bell in Salinas, Calif., using the fast food restaurant’s free WiFi connection to complete their remote school assignments.
“This is California, home to Silicon Valley…but where the digital divide is as deep as ever,” de León tweeted. “Where 40% of all Latinos don’t have internet access. This generation deserves better.”
The story ends happily. The Salinas City Elementary School District responded to the outcry by providing wireless hotspots to the girls and their family, and a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $115,000 to help improve their overall quality of life. The girls’ plight also brought much-needed attention to the digital divide — i.e., the gulf between those with ready access to modern information and communications technologies, and those without.
But the feel-good vibes stop there. As of late 2021, nearly two years into the pandemic, millions of Americans spanning generations, demographics, and geographies still lack access to terrestrial broadband internet.
How many millions? No one seems to know for certain.
The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2019 Broadband Deployment Report states that 21.3 million Americans lack access to broadband internet, including wired and fixed wireless connections; a year later, the FCC slashed that number to 14.5 million. But according to data compiled by independent research organization BroadbandNow, at least 42 million Americans lack broadband access, while Microsoft estimates that 157.3 million people nationwide — close to half of the overall U.S. population — do not use the internet at broadband speeds.
How did we get here, and how is this internet divide holding us back from where we want to go?
The “digital divide” metaphor entered the American vernacular following the 1995 publication of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration report Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America. The NTIA identified widespread discrepancies in national internet access, with migrant or ethnic minority groups and older, less-affluent residents of rural areas among those most negatively affected.
In the years to follow, subsequent studies determined that access to and usage of computer technology were stratified by a multitude of factors, including:
Researchers found that young, affluent, highly educated urban men and women living in small families with children were most likely to possess the material or physical access (as well as the experience, skills, and leisure time) to explore the digital world. On the other hand, many people from less-advantaged groups were shown to lack the basic tools required to search online for information relevant to their lives.
A quarter century after the NTIA report, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed this widening divide in stark detail: as quarantined Americans abruptly adapted virtually all aspects of their waking lives to digital channels, citizens without broadband access were left on the outside looking in, much to their detriment. Researchers at the Fletcher School at Tufts University found that digital inequities dramatically increased during the pandemic, highlighting significant repercussions for:
While many states expanded their telehealth policies to accommodate a COVID-era influx of remote consultations (Civis Analytics research reveals that 41 percent of Americans have accessed telehealth services as of fall 2021, up from 9 percent before the pandemic), the digital divide hampered healthcare access in New Mexico, Montana, Vermont, and Iowa. In addition, states including Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina were slow to evolve their telehealth policies, and continue to lag behind the national average in terms of overall digital access.
Salinas is no outlier. A June 2020 study conducted by Common Sense Media, EducationSuperHighway and Boston Consulting Group found that between 15 million and 16 million K-12 students, or 30 percent of all U.S. public school students, live in households without either an internet connection, a device adequate for remote learning, or both. Sixty percent of these disconnected students can’t afford digital access, the study found; up to 40 percent face adoption barriers (e.g., a deficit of digital literacy skills or an inability to complete the signup process for low-cost broadband service); and roughly 25 percent lack access to reliable digital infrastructure (an issue primarily impacting students in rural regions, in particular Native American students).
With Black and Hispanic households accounting for nearly half of all Americans without internet access at home, it’s not surprising that 70 percent of Blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics are insufficiently equipped with digital skills, diminishing their employability. According to the Deutsche Bank report America’s Racial Gap and Big Tech’s Closing Window, 76 percent of Blacks and 62 percent of Hispanics could get shut out of or be underprepared for 86 percent of U.S. jobs by 2045.
The situation is similarly dire across the country’s 574 tribal nations. The American Indian Policy Institute determined that just 67 percent of tribal lands in the continental U.S. have access to broadband internet. An earlier AIPI survey found limited availability and awareness of information and/or programs spotlighting the benefits of internet use and tips for accessing the web: only 20 percent of Native American respondents said their tribe offers these digital literacy resources and initiatives, 25 percent said their tribe does not offer these resources and programs, and 44 percent said they were unsure whether or not their tribe offers them.
The digital divide has long stymied workforce development and advancement potential in rural and low-income urban areas. Deloitte found that
President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act promises to narrow America’s digital gap. The bill, passed in Nov. 2021, commits $65 billion to expanding broadband availability and 5G wireless connectivity across the U.S. But a truly comprehensive and effective solution to bridging the digital divide must address more than infrastructure and access, because infrastructure and access alone do not ensure adoption.
For starters, affordability remains a question mark. Although the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42 billion toward grants for state broadband projects and $14.2 billion toward the extension of the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, the package reduces the monthly Internet services discount provided to low-income households from $50 to $30, “which at best is counterproductive and further underscores the need for Congress to provide additional funding and at worst will only cement the digital divide in the future,” Jane Coffin, senior vice president for internet growth at the nonprofit Internet Society, writes in The Hill.
The dearth of reliable data also poses enormous concerns. “To ensure investments in infrastructure are made in the areas that need it most, we need the most accurate and meaningful maps,” Coffin notes.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act must also guarantee equitable access to broadband connection speeds and hardware that are in lockstep with the demands of remote education and collaboration. ”Adequate internet connection is defined as internet with sufficient speeds for distance learning, of 25/3 Mbps (download/upload speeds), at a minimum,” explains Common Sense Media — a definition that excludes dial-up connections (too slow at 40 Kbps to 60 Kbps). Cellular or satellite networks can meet baseline speed requirements, but also demand sufficient data plans.
Devices are no less critical. Per Common Sense, desktop computers, laptops, tablets meet the criteria, although “it is important to provide students with their own device, as sharing a device with a sibling or parent can cause distance learning disruptions.” And while it’s possible to engage in distance learning via mobile phones, there are challenges inherent in reading and typing on small device screens, as well as potential incompatibilities between mobile operating systems and learning applications, along with an increased likelihood of distraction compared to other connected devices.
Although the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act makes it clear the U.S. is serious about eliminating the digital divide, it’s equally clear that the country must also get serious about:
Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, contends that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act falls well short of the hundreds of billions required to truly solve the digital divide dilemma. To maximize the value of every available dollar, it’s essential that legislators know precisely which communities are in most desperate need of broadband access, and designate funds accordingly.
The problem is that much of the data required to guide this kind of coordinated effort is either unavailable, unreliable, or fragmented across multiple government and commercial databases. To make this data more broadly useful and insightful, it must be consolidated, cleaned, and made securely accessible to relevant stakeholders.
Closing the digital divide depends on more than building out internet infrastructure and expanding digital access: it also hinges on impactful, persuasive messaging. Alerting residents of historically underserved regions to the availability of fixed broadband access is not enough to get them online; local governments must also inform citizens of available subsidies to defray the costs of high-speed access, free programs to boost digital literacy, and related initiatives.