This story was also featured in The Startup (Medium’s largest publication with 723K readers) and will be featured in the Harvard Kennedy School Review.
The internet was supposed to be open to all, but it is closed to many. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that without reliable internet access, Americans often cannot work, attend school, or access telehealth support. If you’ve ever felt the frustration of losing your WiFi or getting caught in a dead zone with no connection, you know the pain that millions of American feel every day. The difference is that many families cannot reset the router and go on with their lives.
According to the FCC, 21 million Americans and 10 million school-age children do not have internet access. This means that 15% of children will not have the same education as their peers, will struggle academically, and will have fewer economic opportunities as they grow older. The challenges of the ‘digital divide’ are growing.
Low-income communities are the least connected in America. New data analysis reveals a 75% correlation between median household income and broadband access across all US counties. Many of these regions tend to be rural or tribal regions where there are fewer jobs and less public infrastructure. A child born into a county with a median income of $35,000 has a coin-flip chance of having any internet connection.
Douglass County, CO, and Telfair County, GA, are prime examples of the digital divide since they are the best and worst connected counties in the country. On one hand, Douglas has 97% connectivity, sits right outside of Denver, and has a median income of $115,314. On the other, Telfair has 32% connectivity, sits 100 miles from the nearest city, and has a median income of $30,288. The digital divide maps almost exactly to the country’s economic divide. Loudon County, VA, the richest county in America, just ordered 15,000 Chromebooks for its students in May 2020 while Telfair has seen no such support.
The problem is worse than policymakers realize. The FCC has historically underestimated the number of connected households, and even some of the agency’s own commissioners have dismissed FCC reports as “blindly accepting incorrect data.” The FCC measures connectivity by census block, which means that if an Internet Service Provider (ISP) offers service to at least one household in a census block, the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider. The FCC acknowledges this measurement error and is working with ISPs to fix it.
BroadBandNow, an internet watchdog that conducts digital divide research, instead calculates that 42 million Americans lack internet access, double the official estimate.
Pre-COVID19 Digital Divide
While the digital divide is now in clear focus as people work remotely and learn online, the problem has existed for decades. In 2010, the Gates Foundation conducted a study of 77 million people who could not access the internet at home and thus relied on internet at public libraries. The Gates Foundation found that this connectivity was critical for advancing people’s education, health, careers, and access to government services.
32 million people (42% of visitors) sought out educational help on the library computers — 37% of these respondents used their local library computer to do homework for a class, meaning that internet access at a library helped advance the educations of 12 million students.
30 million people (40% of visitors) used the internet to apply for jobs — 75% of these respondents said that they searched online for a job and 51% submitted a resume.
28 million people (37% of visitors) used library computers for health issues — 82% of these respondents logged on to learn about a disease, illness, or medical condition and 33% searched for doctors or health care providers.
Even before the pandemic pushed everyone online, internet access was essential for getting basic needs in an increasingly digital world.
Students, Income Inequality, and the Internet
Students in low-income communities suffer the most. In Robeson County, North Carolina, the median income is $33,679, putting it in the poorest 5% of all counties, but students spend weeks trying to get WiFi hotspots to turn in homework. 43% of the county’s 27,000 students have no internet. In November, the New York Times interviewed a school superintendent in Robeson who said this about unaffordable access and lack of cell towers: “It’s un-American. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we live in a place where you have all this technology, yet we have families who can’t access the internet in the comfort of their home.”
While the digital divide is often seen as a rural challenge, students in cities feel the pain too. In August 2020, a photo went viral after two girls in Los Angeles were seen studying on the ground in a Taco Bell parking lot to use the nearby WiFi. These children were just two of the 268,000 students in LA County without internet. James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, summarized the internet inequality dilemma, saying, “The tragedy is this is not a Democratic or Republican problem. It is simply not fair that a poor family in a rural area or a low-income urban area does not have the resources to send their kids to school in this pandemic.”
Income inequality is increasing in America, which widens the digital divide. When income inequality grows, fewer families can afford broadband plans or purchase connected devices, fewer ISPs compete in low-income areas, and more people move into poorly connected affordable housing. But increasing internet access can actually reduce inequality. One Brookings study in the US showed that increasing internet penetration by 1% can increase employment by 0.3%, creating jobs for 405,000 people. In these studies, families used this newfound access to search for jobs, healthcare, training, and government support.
The Path Forward
Three different tactics have been deployed to address the digital divide – public, private, and non-profit. These three domains will have to work in tandem to address the highly correlated challenge of income inequality and internet inequality. The best solutions are to provide hotspots to students, to subsidize the cost of connecting low-income communities, and to increase competition in broadband markets to drive down prices.
Public sector solutions – In June 2020, Representative Jim Clyburn introduced a $100 billion bill (H.R. 7302) to help bring high speed internet to rural communities. The bill is the largest Congressional effort ever seen to address internet inequality, with $80 billion going towards broadband infrastructure spending, and the rest going towards creating more affordable and accessible options. Congress is not acting alone though. The Department of Agriculture has created a Rural Utilities Service and ReConnect program; the Department of Commerce has deployed billions through its Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program and State Broadband Initiative; and the FCC similarly has helped ISPs set up networks through its Universal Service Fund and Connect America Fund and helped families through its E-Rate program and $9.95/month subsidy through Lifeline.
Private Sector Solutions – ISPs like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have created various programs to increase coverage and close the digital divide. Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program offers low-cost 25mbps internet for $9.95/month to households that can show they’ve used public assistance programs like housing assistance or food stamps. ISPs typically rely on government support to connect rural areas since this can be costly, just like it was when America first started electrifying rural areas. While fiber has the potential to provide cheaper and faster internet, it has not yet shown promising results and the cost of laying fiberoptic cables can run $50-$500 per foot.
Non-Profit Solutions – US non-profits have focused on both short-term and long-term solutions. In the short-term, non-profits like Mobile Citizen, Mobile Beacon and No One Left Offline have helped deploy WiFi hotspots and affordable internet plans to families in need. They have also helped schools put WiFi networks on school buses so children can park nearby to complete homework. In the long-term, non-profits have helped cities and towns create their own municipal networks by setting up towers and negotiating contracts. However, these efforts have recently run into setbacks. 22 states actually ban municipal broadband, meaning that private companies have to be the ones to provide internet. Municipal networks often increase competition, thereby lowering prices.
Lessons from the Electrification of America
When Thomas Edison helped electrify the country, he revolutionized the way that Americans work. Electric dishwashers and washing machines gave hours back to people every day, people worked longer hours under the shine of lightbulbs, and a whole new industry of public utilities emerged in lockstep. While it was expensive to run electrical cables to rural areas or low-income neighborhoods that struggled with high prices, electricity improved everything about daily life.
The public, private, and non-profit sectors can work together again to bring internet connectivity to millions. Just as Thomas Edison put electricity in nearly every home, so too can America put internet into every person’s hands. Congress has brought funds, ISPs have brought infrastructure, and non-profits have brought community engagement. The focus now must be on students, particularly because programs that invest in children have the highest returns. These three sectors can make the biggest change by focusing on regions that have overlapping red in the two charts above– the highest number of children without internet and the lowest internet penetration.
The internet has become essential to the functioning of everyday life. While low-income families and students suffer the most without internet access, solutions to increase connectivity can help bridge America’s digital divide.