COVID-19 has exacerbated the digital divide. Those who do not have internet and the devices to use it are falling even further behind.
While so much of the news has been about how those in K-12 are struggling with virtual education, the reality is it’s also impacting students in higher education, job seekers, and employees.
The Washington Post last month hosted a webinar about the digital divide. Two of the main speakers were Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. They agreed a bipartisan solution needs to be found to deal with the issue. It will also take the public and private sectors to work on this together.
“A lot of this is an affordability issue, not just infrastructure,” Shalala said.
Even when high speed internet is available, it doesn’t mean a person can afford a phone, tablet or computer to use it on. If they have a device, then the issue of paying for the internet connection comes into play. This is why some districts have set up hot spots at the campus and on school buses. That only works if a student takes the bus or has time to hang out after school to do homework or someone to drive them to school that night to tap into the internet.
“The educational divide is widening. Education is the foundation to having a better life,” Rodgers said.
Investments have been made so schools, libraries and hospitals have internet, but it’s not the same as having it at home.
“There are regions I know of in my district where laying fiber is cost prohibitive so we need other technology like television,” Rodgers said. She spoke about Microsoft working with the FCC on a pilot project to use the white space on televisions for internet connectivity.
For some who can afford the internet and have multiple devices, they are learning they don’t have enough bandwidth to service everyone in the residence working and going to school. Rodgers acknowledged with three kids at home doing remote learning, that her internet connection has been strained.
Access to the internet is an issue for rural areas as well as for people living in urban areas. The problem strikes poor areas the hardest. While a particular job may not require the internet, applying for it probably does. Most services are online as well, from unemployment, to government help, to telemedicine.
A study released last fall in the Journal of Applied Philosophy said free internet should be a basic human right. According to the World Wide Web Foundation, “Internet access is affordable if 1 gigabyte of data costs no more than 2 percent of average monthly income; currently some 2.3 billion people are without affordable internet access.”
The late John Lewis called the internet the civil rights issue of the 21st century.