Access to the Internet is a fundamental human right. It determines those who can participate in an increasingly remote, telecommuting world and those who cannot. When students were seen doing their homework in the parking lot of Taco Bell, the cry for digital equity was bolstered. The pandemic shone a stark light on the perils of the digital divide.
“At the start of the pandemic,” said Anu Wadhwa, a teacher at Mountain View Whisman school district in California “the school’s district office kept a close watch on which students seemed to not be participating in school work. Quick action was taken, and intervention was made to ensure every home sending a child to school had access to the internet.”
“Chromebooks were given to all middle and high school students. As the pandemic rolled out elementary school students were also given Chromebooks. For the students who are homeless, the schools kept some classrooms open where the students could come and do their homework, practicing safe distancing and keeping their masks on.”
“We have been able to close the digital divide to the best of our ability,” said Wadhwa.
“Digital Divide,” a term used to describe the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who do not. The divide is shaped both by the availability of internet services in different regions and the ability of individuals to tap into those services. A person’s location, income, gender, education, language, and age are some of the factors that define their access.
Frequently, low-income communities of color sit on the wrong side of this digital divide. The pandemic spotlighted the divide, made worse by the shutting down of libraries and cafes that allowed many without home broadband to get online.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the then FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Initiative on March 13, 2020.
In order to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances, the initiative requested broadband and telephone service providers, and trade associations, to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, COVID-19 Telehealth Program to help health care providers provide connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the pandemic, and for $16 billion in funding from the CARES Act’s Education Stabilization Fund for remote learning.
Shut out from this help are the 34 million US households who do not have access to the Internet.
There should be a stronger emphasis on treating fiber as an infrastructure, versus purely a broadband service. When broadband, like in the United States, is owned by privately owned cable companies it becomes a commodity and not a public utility, ” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) at a Ethnic News Media briefing on July23.
The digital cliff into deeper poverty and greater isolation for the disadvantaged must be avoided through digital equity.
The Senate has, for approval, an infrastructure package to improve broadband access nationwide; $65 billion is earmarked for universal broadband infrastructure.
This is where things will be challenging. Thirty six million U.S. households do not have an Internet connection – a wire line – cable, DSL or fiber in their homes. Of these 26 million are urban. Even in big cities people have been left behind. For example, San Francisco has approximately 100,000 people per the city’s own internal analysis that lack broadband (most of whom are low-income and predominantly people of color), yet are surrounded by Comcast and AT&T fiber deployments in that same city.
“25% Spanish speaking households are not connected at home. And 10 % connect using a smartphone,” said Sunne McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) at the EMS briefing.
“15% of California’s population is low income and digitally disadvantaged,” said McPeak. “Morally it should be a utility but legally it is a commodity.”
On the other hand, “the infrastructure may be there, but it may not meet the needs of the population, or they may not be able to afford it, and or they may not know how to use it,” said Siefer. “Technology is confusing, it is intimidating and then there is the trust factor (privacy, safety concerns),” she said.
Of the $65 billion earmarked for universal broadband infrastructure, $2.75 billion supports a Digital Equity Act. Digital equity is the goal. And it can be met by hand holding them across the divide to the other side.
“Affordable home broadband- lower rates, affordable devices, digital literacy and skills training with someone to turn to when they have a question is essential to achieve this.” One on one support.
She urged practitioners of digital equity to reach out to the local officials and make use of Emergency Broadband Benefit before it runs out.
This new benefit will connect eligible households to jobs, critical healthcare services, virtual classrooms, and so much more. The Emergency Broadband Benefit will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. California has more Native Americans staying in the state than any other state.
Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
This benefit, McPeak said, for the moment is under-subscribed.