digital divide or unified?
You may have heard of the digital divide, it’s the inequity between the haves and the have nots for access to broadband and basic internet connectivity.
“You may be thinking, this doesn’t apply to me, I’ve been connected for as long as I can remember. Plus, I have enough to worry about, with COVID-19 and trying to get back to normal work routines, to worry about a small portion of the population that can’t access the web.” So why is the digital divide becoming, what many call, a national epidemic?
Let’s illustrate the digital divide with a fictional character, let’s call him Barry, a representative of 30 million Americans currently on the wrong side of the digital divide. Prior to the pandemic, Barry had good paying job, three children in school and a wife who had a part time job. Barry lives in a rural part of Mississippi, a middle-class neighborhood with average tax paying citizens. On March 15th of 2020, Barry gets a call from his superior at work that employees will not be able to come into the office due to COVID-19, and he is asked to work from home. Barry’s wife gets the same type of call, and soon after, the children’s school dispatches a similar message, all schools are closed until further notice. If Barry lived in McLean, VA or Chevy Chase MD, his predicament would be of little consequence, he would quite simply create a little home office, fire up his laptop, log onto Zoom and he would be off to the races.
For millions of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, young adults, and even toddlers, laptops don’t exist in the home and certainly not high-speed broadband connectivity. But why does this matter, as we can’t expect everyone to be connected, right? What is the impact of ignoring this sector of the population, who don’t have the economic or geographical means to connect to the world, to information, and access potential emergency services that could save their lives?
Let’s start from a macro-economic perspective. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group, Common Sense Media, and the Southern Education Foundation indicates that, “students without reliable tech and Internet access have lower GPAs than those with access. Those lower GPAs will eventually lead to a 4- to 6-percent drop in expected annual income, which will amount to a $22 billion to $33 billion annual loss in GDP.”
According to the Federal Communication’s Commission, “nearly 30 million Americans cannot reap the benefits of the digital age. In urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%, where the divide has disproportionately affected rural states and 40 to 50 percent of those students are in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.”
According to a 2020 research study by Capgemini, bridging the digital divide is one of the great challenges we face as a society today. In the U.S., the primary barrier is cost, with 84% of the offline population under 36 years old saying the cost of an internet subscription is what prevents them from going online, compared to a 51% average globally. 76% of the offline population in this age group in the U.S. also say computers and mobile phones are too expensive, compared to 56% globally. In addition to these economic barriers (67% of the offline population is below the poverty line) a disproportionate percentage of the offline population are women at 53%.
But a national epidemic, really? How are a few million people that can’t watch Youtube videos or connect to their Facebook page an epidemic?
So, let’s go back to Barry’s life. It’s now January 2021, Barry received a small amount of relief money from the government, his landlord gave him a one-year abatement for rent and his wife and children are safe from COVID-19. All is well in Barry’s home and better yet, soon he learns there could be an answer to all of his problems, a vaccine that could ensure the survival and heath of his family. The local news station is saying that he can log onto his local county website and register for the vaccine, simple enough, right? But Barry’s predicament is far more complicated than the other 290 million people in America. Barry has no broadband connectivity in his rural part of Mississippi, he doesn’t have a computer and if he did, it’s not connected to the internet. Even if Barry had a smart phone, he couldn’t connect and if he could, he lacks the knowledgebase that would allow him to navigate the process to register for the vaccine. So, Barry decides to call his local county office to register for the vaccine, but nobody answers, just a standard message directing Barry to register online or visit his local pharmacy, who turns out has no vaccines, and informs Barry that they will update their website when they do. Barry becomes discouraged, feeling disenfranchised, left out, depressed, and confused. But Barry’s in luck, his oldest son goes to a junior college in Jackson Mississippi and is able to log onto the university’s internet, register his mother and father for the vaccine, and all is well in Barry household; oh wait, not just yet.
Barry’s youngest child, Sebrina, is 5 years old and has a rash that has spread and needs medical attention. It not an emergency, so Barry calls his local doctors office, and they say they are booked for 2 weeks and to go to urgent care or, register for a virtual telemedicine appointment and someone will get back to him. Barry has no device or connection that would allow for a remote or virtual appointment, so back to square one. Now, Sebrina is really scathing that rash and Barry is again feeling helpless and frustrated. He takes his daughter to urgent care, waits in the long and likely infected line of patients when finally, Sebrina is treated and released, along with a big bill that is not covered by Barry’s insurance. If he only had the Internet…
According to Researchers at Penn Medicine who examined data for approximately 150,000 patients from a large academic medical system, “patients who were older than 55 were 25% less likely than the average patient to successfully participate in a telemedicine visit. Those over 75 were 33% less likely, the researchers found. A further breakdown showed that people who were Asian were 31% less likely to conduct a telemedicine visit. Those who didn’t speak English were 16% less likely. Patients who use Medicaid for insurance were about 7% less likely than the average patient to
conduct a successful telemedicine visit. Within the narrower definition of telemedicine, patients over 55 were at least 32% less likely to conduct a video visit. Those over 75 were 51% less likely to conduct a video visit.” So, what is being done by both the public and private sectors for closing the digital divide for education and emergency services?
In the public sector, The Federal Communications Commission launched the E-rate program, that allows telecommunications vendors to bid on projects in rural or underserved areas to build out internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure for schools and libraries. Eligible schools and libraries may receive discounts on telecommunications services, Internet access and basic maintenance of internal connections.
The United Nations is aiming to raise awareness of the divide by way of The World Information Society Day, which takes place annually, since May 17, 2006. The UN also set up the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Task Force, in November 2001. Other UN initiatives are the World Summit on the Information Society, which was set up in 2003, and the Internet Governance Forum, set up in 2006.
The private sector has increased efforts to bridge the gap, particularly for the public safety community, which needs reliable, high-speed communications networks now more than ever. TV Station WOIO reported, “County governments and ISPs such as AT&T, are stepping in, to provide connectivity to students who need it to complete online coursework. For example, Ohio’s Cuyahoga County donated 300 hotspots to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to distribute to students without internet access, and the county worked with AT&T to provide free Wi-Fi access for two months, to the hotspots.
Verizon deployed portable cell sites to provide additional network coverage at emergency operations centers, coronavirus mobile testing sites and quarantine areas in Arizona, California, Georgia, New York, South Carolina, Texas and Washington state.
You may be wondering how we [the US] stacks up with the rest of the world on the digital divide? Only three countries (China, US, Japan) host 50% of the globally installed bandwidth, the U.S. lost its global leadership in terms of installed bandwidth in 2011, being replaced by China, which hosts more than twice as much national bandwidth potential.
Redux Extra says thank you to the FCC, the private sector and other organizations for unifying and working towards closing the digital divide.