Fiber for Breakfast Week 23: COVID-19 and the Digital Divide—How Do We Move Forward?

Fiber for Breakfast Week 23: COVID-19 and the Digital Divide—How Do We Move Forward?

September 03, 2020

For many Americans, the internet is not made equal.

 The “digital divide” is the growing gap between those with access to affordable, reliable, quality internet and those who are left in the dark. These people make up a diverse group: those in rural areas, low income families, people of color in urban settings, and those who live in suburban monopolies, to name a few. While the digital divide has impacted the U.S. for decades, COVID-19 has reinvigorated efforts to close it.

At a recent Fiber for Breakfast live video series, two experts discussed barriers to fixing the digital divide, and offered solutions on how to fix it.

“You’re disconnected from life if you don’t have the internet,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge. “I think everyone knows broadband is essential, but it’s particularly important now. Even before COVID, we needed broadband for every facet of life. But now, we need to work from home, take online classes, access health care, and so much more.”

According to Public Knowledge—a non-profit that promotes freedom of expression, open internet and affordable communication tools—there are 42 million Americans who don’t have access to broadband. A majority of those people live in rural areas, including tribal lands, and are people of color. Of that 42 million, more than a quarter are students who don’t have internet at home.

There are several barriers that restrict internet nationwide. In many areas, broadband just isn’t available. And in areas where it is, it’s not affordable due to network monopolies that drive prices up, Leventoff said. Those that can afford it often don’t have the right devices to use the internet or encounter low speeds and frequent outages.

With everyone at home, people are resorting to desperate measures to get connected—especially if there are several people who need the internet in the home.

“A lot of families are left in a situation where they need to choose if parents are going to be able to do a video meeting or a kid is going to take online classes,” said Leventoff. “That is not an acceptable place to be right now.”

Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, said the pandemic has pushed many people to the edge. It’s making many state and local governments take matters into their own hands. And while this change can lead to real progress, Ochillo said there are still barriers for them to enter the game.

“What we know is that COVID has made solving the digital divide an inherently local issue, because where there are no federal solutions and where there is no state framework, local officials have had to fill in the gaps and find a way to connect students and seniors and populations that don’t have any other options,” she said.

One of the biggest problems: The lack of data. Ochillo said the FCC’s data on who is not connected is “woefully inadequate,” and federal regulators do not call upon the expertise of local and state governments to understand their needs.

“We really need to make a united front by making sure that local officials are included in policy-making. Full stop,” she said. “There are lots of ways to do it, and for all the providers on this call, if you want to know how you can help, ask a [FCC] Commissioner about the last time they spoke to a municipal leader about the policies that impact their communities. Local officials are the ones that have to comply with FCC mandates, but rarely are they actually invited to the meeting process and very often organizations have to go and wedge a place at the table for them to actually have a voice in that.”

Leventoff agreed. She said without clear, accurate data—and without understanding the unique needs of individual communities around the country—the digital divide will continue to grow.

“Once we actually know the truth [about the severity of the digital divide], it’s about investing in deployments—and not just deployments of any networks, it’s the deployment of futureproof networks,” she said. “We really need to make sure we’re building networks everywhere—rural areas, tribal lands, inner cities and suburbs. This isn’t just we need to build out in areas that are profitable—they need to be everywhere.”

Ochillo said network providers need to be the first line of advocates for these changes, and they need to partner with the communists they’re in to find solutions that serve all populations. Moreover, states and local governments need to start creating thoughtful strategies and put money behind those objectives.

“I want to remind people it’s not enough for members of congress to talk about this issue; we need to assign resources where local officials and states can actually take advantage of the funding available,” she said. “We know it’s a problem, we get it, but at this point we need to start brainstorming solutions and we need to open up the roundtable of who we are deputizing with good ideas.”

Join us for the next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Sept. 9 at 10 am ET. The topic: Worldwide Fiber Demand and Deployment - The Near Term Prospects and Drivers