An Old Problem in the New Normal: The Digital Divide

Article In The Thread
New America / sirtravelalot on Shutterstock
July 6, 2021

The digital divide has never been deeper than it is today. The gap between those with and without broadband, an issue since the inception of broadband, has only continued to widen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, the transition to life online felt, at least technologically speaking, seamless. During the height of the pandemic, those with broadband could continue distance learning, seeing their doctor virtually, working remotely, and connecting with loved ones on video calls. But while it’s become normal to assume that everyone has access to something as ubiquitous as the internet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. As more Americans get vaccinated and social distancing becomes less urgent, equitable access to broadband is essential for signing up for COVID-19 vaccines, telehealth, schoolwork, the future of work, and much more. The country must meet the moment by ensuring everyone has the opportunities that access to broadband provides.

What is broadband?

Broadband is high-speed internet access that is delivered via digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable, fiber, wireless, or satellite. When we talk about the digital divide, we’re referring to a growing gap between people who do, and do not, have access to high-speed internet. For home internet-users without broadband, the alternative is dial-up service. Prior to broadband, the internet was delivered to homes via dial-up service and currently about 3 percent of Americans still use dial-up. It is slow (about 0.056 megabits per second compared to the average speed of broadband at about 124Mbps) and does not allow simultaneous phone calls and internet usage.

Why is everyone suddenly talking about broadband access?

Since March 2020, health care has been increasingly reliant on broadband. During the pandemic, families with broadband could use their internet access to book telehealth appointments and receive health care at home, safe from exposure to COVID-19; at UnitedHealth Group alone, the number of telehealth visits increased from 1.2 million in 2019 to 34 million in 2020. Being able to receive health care from the comfort of your own home is part of why nearly 8 in 10 Americans that used telehealth in the last year said they were likely to continue using it after the pandemic. Broadband also plays a vital role in scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine, with those without access reporting that they had to call state hotlines and wait for hours to book an appointment.

Access to the internet was once so new, it seemed normal that some people had access while others did not.

School closures, as a result of distancing measures for combatting the pandemic, exposed and exacerbated the preexisting digital divide amongst students, also known as the homework gap. A study from the Pew Research Center found that 22 percent of adults with children whose schools were closed due to the pandemic said it was likely that their children would have to rely on public Wi-Fi. That percentage increased to 40 percent for low-income households, with reports of families driving their students to parking lots at Starbucks and McDonald’s to access free Wi-Fi. As teachers and families prepare for the upcoming school year, the homework gap will further undermine education equity for the 16.9 million children who do not have access to high-speed internet at home. Teachers will also face challenges, as students with low-quality remote learning are reported to have lost at least seven months of learning, and those with no remote learning opportunities will have fallen a full year behind. Without home broadband, students will continue to face additional challenges to complete homework, research for projects, and explore their academic, personal, and professional interests.

Who’s on which side of the digital divide?

The pandemic has exacerbated a longstanding divide that disproportionately affects low-income households and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. There are conflicting data points on who and how many across the country lack broadband. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the total count for those in the country lacking access to the minimum standard of internet service (25 Mbps in download speed and 3 Mbps in upload speed) is 21.3 million; other estimates, however, range from 42 million to 157.3 million people.

While the numbers depicting the digital divide differ, even the lowest estimates reason there are tens of millions without access. Pew reports that 92 percent of adults in households earning $75,000 or more per year have broadband internet at home, but that percentage falls to 57 percent in households earning below $30,000 annually.

Further, Pew finds that 80 percent of white adults have home broadband adoption, compared to 71 percent of Black and 65 percent of Hispanic adults. Additionally, Native Nations that still suffer the effects of centuries of exclusion from access to essential resources are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide. According to the American Indian Policy Institute, 18 percent of tribal reservations lack home internet access.

What are the barriers to broadband adoption and how do we close the digital divide?

The digital divide is a problem of availability, affordability, and digital literacy. Programs such as the FCC’s new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) illustrate the country’s commitment to move forward in efforts to close the digital divide. The EBB is a new federal program that provides a $50 monthly discount on internet service ($75 on Tribal lands) to qualifying low-income households. This program is only temporary, however, and it is critical that federal and local governments, civil society, and private partners work on long-term solutions that will close the digital divide for good. The Open Technology Institute’s (OTI) Cost of Connectivity report finds the average monthly cost of internet in the United States is $68.38, where research suggests that low-income households can only afford to pay about $10 per month for broadband.

High prices are compounded by the fact that providers do not publicly disclose data about their prices nor does the government collect pricing data, leaving consumers in the dark. The government must collect more data on actual deployment, available speeds, and pricing to more accurately understand who does and does not have broadband, and why. Further, consumers need to know what they are paying for. OTI has long advocated for a broadband nutrition label that providers should use to disclose the prices, speeds, and terms of different services.

Access to the internet was once so new, it seemed normal that some people had access while others did not. Now, access to broadband means economic opportunity, educational enrichment, and connection to loved ones. The pandemic shined a light on the difficulties for households without broadband and this spotlight can serve as an opportunity to provide broadband access, and all that it offers, to everyone as we approach the new normal.

You May Also Like

Next Generation Wi-Fi: Heading Off a 5G Digital Divide with Affordable Connectivity for All (Open Technology Institute): We hosted a discussion on Wi-Fi’s future and the proposals FCC Commissioners have championed, making 5G wireless connectivity available and affordable.

Bridging Digital Equity and Culturally Responsive Education in PreK–12 (Education Policy): COVID-19 caused many school districts to have required students to take courses remotely or use a hybrid approach, and in this report we tackle the challenges of digital equity in education.

To close digital equity gaps, US should endow a private Digital Futures Foundation (Open Technology Institute): In this article, our Wireless Future Project outlines why revenue from auctions of government-owned airwaves should be used to fill digital equity gaps.

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