June 08, 2020

Widening the Digital Divide

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Last December, my neighborhood experienced a power outage for about 12 hours. It was quite an inconvenience: I had no Internet access, particularly after my cell phone battery died. Our heat wouldn’t turn on and it got a bit chilly inside. I had just been to the grocery store the day before and was concerned about a refrigerator full of food going bad.

Even at the time, I knew I was fortunate. I didn’t know why the power was out, but I was pretty certain that crews were working to restore it. I didn’t need to access the Internet or contact anyone, and since I live in southern California, even a chilly December day is pretty mild by winter standards. And having a refrigerator full of food is always a privilege, as is knowing it could be replaced without having to sacrifice another necessity.

That day served as a reminder of how dependent on electricity and technology many of us are in our everyday lives. When my university went fully online in mid-March, I remembered that day in December and hoped that my electricity and Internet connections would stay dependable (they did). But it is clear that during the past few months that for many people, these issues would deepen what has become known as the digital divide.

What is the digital divide? Simply put, it is the gap in access to and ability to use technologies ranging from devices like computers, tablets, and smart phones, Internet access, and even reliable electricity. This gap has become more acute as many in-person activities have shifted online in recent months.

The Pew Research Center regularly studies the digital divide and issues related to technology. In a report released April 30, they noted that:

Roughly one-in-five parents with homebound schoolchildren say it is very or somewhat likely their children will not be able complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home (21%) or have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there is not a reliable internet connection at home (22%). And about three-in-ten parents (29%) report that it is at least somewhat likely their children will have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone.

The numbers are even more stark when the question was posed to parents whose children’s schools are closed: 43 percent of lower-income children have to do homework on a cellphone, 40 percent need to use public WiFi, and 36 percent will not be able to do their homework because they have no computer access at home.

There’s not just an income divide, there’s a geographic divide too. As Pew reported last year, rural areas are less likely to have broadband internet access, a 12 percent divide than Americans overall. While about 75 percent of Americans overall have broadband access, only about 63 percent of those residing in rural areas had broadband in 2019.

It’s not necessarily because they don’t want it: Pew reported in 2018 that getting high-speed internet access is a “major problem” for nearly one in four people in rural areas. Another 34 percent described getting high-speed Internet as a “minor problem.” These concerns spanned household income levels.

Having Internet access, devices, and electricity are only part of the story. What if your device is old and doesn’t handle streaming video very well, but you are expected to attend school via teleconferencing? What if your Internet connection is unreliable, or unable to stream data for multiple devices in the household? Many of my students faced these challenges while connecting from home. They might have also been in small spaces with family members, making it difficult to concentrate on their work, with no ability to escape to a library or local coffee shop to get work done.

There’s also an age gap, even for people who have access to the Internet. Some of my family members have struggled with using teleconferencing technology for doctor’s appointments or visiting with friends. This has left them feeling more isolated than usual, which was already a problem before the pandemic, as I blogged about last year. Whether ordering groceries online for the first time, paying bills online, or doing anything that previously might have involved a customer service representative on the phone or in person, not everyone is confident in using the Internet for these important tasks.

And then there’s the matter of electricity. My December power outage was community-wide, relatively brief, and not the result of an unpaid bill. But what about families struggling with utility bills? Will their kids effectively be shut out of school? Many states currently have issued moratoriums and will not allow utility companies to shut off power, but as this crisis continues some of these bans will likely expire.

These are just a few examples of how the digital divide may widen during the current crisis. How else might the gap widen—especially in the labor market—going forward?

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