COVID-19 has widened the digital divide - how can we bridge the gap?

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 2, 2021
The extent of the divide between the digital haves and have-nots became crystal clear during the pandemic. So what can be done about it?

Image of a woman using an iPad
(Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay )

In wealthy nations across the world, the pandemic has significantly increased the gap between the digital haves and have-nots, highlighting just how profound an impact the digital divide actually has on disadvantaged communities.

According to figures from the US Federal Communications Commission, for example, while a huge 97% of Americans in urban areas currently have access to high-speed internet services, the figure plummets to 65% in rural areas and to a mere 60% on tribal lands. This means that nearly 30 million people have poor or no online access either because it is unaffordable or because of a lack of adequate digital infrastructure.

But a key problem with this situation, says Dr Nicol Turner Lee, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, is that:

Unequal access to the internet reinforces socioeconomic disparities by denying opportunities for upward mobility to communities that already face significant barriers to accessing education, employment, and healthcare. With studies demonstrating a strong association between broadband penetration, GDP growth and job creation, the digital divide not only threatens to accelerate the wealth gap in the United States, but also to reduce economic productivity and lower the United States' competitiveness within the global economy.

The effect of pandemic-related lockdowns in this regard has been particularly severe among children of school age though, Turner Lee points out:

Seventy-four of the nation's 100 largest school districts taught solely online, leaving approximately 15-16 million K-12 [kindergarten to 12th grade) public school students without broadband access or an internet-connected device. The digital divide has magnified the United States' persistent ‘achievement gap', particularly as schools have transitioned to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is why I'm proposing a ‘No Child left Offline' policy framework to keep students connected to the internet, even when returning back to school in-person.

This ‘achievement gap' results in an annual loss to US GDP of between $22 and $33 billion, she adds, while McKinsey & Company estimates that it has an impact on employee productivity to the sum of between $310 and $525 billion per year. As a result, Turner Lee believes that, despite the hefty associated price tag, universal home internet access, or at least affordable, high speed broadband for all, which is a "cornerstone" of President Biden's ‘Build Back Better' agenda, is essential to bring the US "closer to digital parity":

Universal broadband access can help to break the cycle of poverty by facilitating access to work development resources, telehealth, ecommerce, and other important resources for upward mobility. The digital divide has remained a stubborn societal reality in the United States. COVID-19 has brought renewed attention and a sense of urgency to the issue of broadband access, helping many policy makers understand that a reliable internet connection is a basic necessity in a modern economy.

The four pillars of digital inclusion

But lack of broadband access is not the only issue facing under-resourced communities. Another is not having the actual devices to go online in the first place.

How the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians of Oregon addressed this particular challenge during lockdown, especially among older members, was to purchase Chromebooks for eligible parties by means of a federal COVID-19 relief grant. The aim was to provide them with the machines required not only to access telehealth and education services, but also to attend tribal council meetings and Zoom classes on everything from cultural history and healthy cooking to craft skills, such as beading and weaving.

The application process was managed by Laserfiche Forms, which enables users to create web documents to collect information and then define how that information is routed, interacted with and managed. Jan Lawrence, digital processing manager for the Confederated Tribes, says:

Being Native American, community and family are very important and so is the connection to each other. So being able to assess people's needs and enable the entire tribe to communicate better than ever before was a key benefit. The digital process enabled us to have inclusion where we didn't have it before as not all tribal members are based here. So using Zoom for council meetings is here to stay. We used to post the meetings on the website, but Zoom is better as it enables people to interact.

But Long Beach, California-based not-for-profit organization Human-IT believes there are actually "four pillars" required to make digital access a reality in most underserved communities. Since its inception in 2012, the body has refurbished and redistributed the ageing and unwanted technology of companies with which it partners, as a first step towards doing just that. Director of Programs AJ Middleton explains:

When someone is affected by the digital divide, they find themselves unable to feasibly participate in the digital economy due to a lack of technology, internet, digital literacy, or some combination thereof. For these people, completing schoolwork, applying for jobs or staying in touch with relatives who live far away can become daunting, if not impossible, tasks. The pandemic only exacerbated these struggles. Many individuals who were already struggling to keep up with their digitally-native peers were faced with the possibility of having no real shot at finding or retaining remote employment. For students living in under-connected or disconnected households, the problem was just as severe.

As a result, in order to try and alleviate the situation for learners, Human-IT worked with Detroit's Connected Futures program to provide them with the necessary wireless tablets and internet access to continue their education. But Middleton believes that other considerations need to be addressed too:

The first is to provide computers to individuals who don't currently have them. This is then closely followed by making sure these same individuals have consistent access to affordable high-speed internet connections. However, we also recognize that people need to know how to use these tools if they're going to actually be helpful for connecting to the digital economy. That's why we offer free digital literacy training and free 24x7 tech support to ensure that a lack of knowledge or a technical issue doesn't prevent someone from reaching their full potential.

My take

In order to address the digital divide experienced by many underserved communities, taking a holistic approach to the issue is vital. It is about addressing a whole range of complex needs, not all of which are technological, in order to give people the leg up they need to flourish.

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