For people living in urban environments, it's easy to think of the internet as a great equalizer. But stats show that isn't the case.
For people living in urban environments, it's easy to think of the internet as a kind of Great Equalizer. Anyone from anywhere can search Google and learn what they need to know. But statistics show that isn't the case, especially for traditionally underserved populations.
Digital equity seeks to close that gap and make the internet what it was always intended to be — a resource that levels the playing field and brings information to everyone's fingertips, no matter where they are.
To make that happen, we need to understand existing barriers and their impacts on health, education, and social mobility.
Digital equity issues affect some of the most vulnerable individuals. The divisions are financial, social, and geographic.
According to a 2021 Pew Research study, 43% of Americans with household incomes under $30,000 a year lack broadband access at home. Nearly as many — 41% — don't own a desktop or laptop computer. By contrast, 63% of those in households earning above $100,000 have home broadband, a desktop or laptop, a smartphone, and a tablet.
Data also showed access inequities among Black and Hispanic communities. Just 20% of white adults reported not having home broadband service, compared to 29% of Black adults and 35% of Hispanic adults.
Although 79% of suburban residents and 77% of city dwellers have home broadband, just 72% of rural residents can say the same. And in the first few months of 2020, the U.S. saw a 10% increase in the number of counties with internet speeds below government standards — just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The gap is even greater on Tribal lands. A 2019 report revealed that 18% of reservation residents have no internet access at all. Approximately one in three rely on smartphone service, often with unreliable connectivity.
The problem isn't exclusive to the U.S. In Canada, close to half of rural residents and almost two-thirds of First Nation households don't have access that meets the country's basic speed target, set by communications regulators more than five years ago.
People who lack internet access in 21st-century North America are at high risk of going unseen, literally and figuratively. By spotlighting these gaps, society takes the first step to creating digital equity.
The next step is understanding impacts — how a lack of access affects people's lives and livelihoods.
As the world comes to rely more and more on digital communications, those without access find themselves left behind in many ways. Digital equity is essential for equal access to work opportunities, social development, and better health.
In 2016, economic experts realized the internet had become Americans' primary way of finding jobs. In 2018, approximately 85% of job applications came to employers through internet job boards or career sites.
Years later, millions of people still have trouble accessing those key resources.
Access issues also affect people's qualifications for these jobs. According to the National Skills Coalition, almost one in three workers lacks fundamental digital skills, and approximately 13% report having no digital skills at all.
Establishing digital equity is crucial to closing that skills gap. Tomorrow's talent can't develop without access.
When individuals are affected, so are communities. A late 2020 report from The Century Foundation revealed that worker organizations have felt the sting of the digital divide. Those most affected are overwhelmingly smaller grassroots groups and those that serve marginalized people.
Digital equity allows under-resourced people to argue for their rights as workers, helping to create more equality overall.
Digital equity is also vital in ensuring people can get the care they need. Telehealth expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, but these services require internet access.
It's a potentially deadly catch-22. Some rural residents have to travel more than half an hour to reach a hospital, yet people in these areas have more difficulty accessing reliable internet.
In the past few years, one of the most prominent digital equity problems has been in education. Digital connectivity is becoming a more significant part of learning, and students with limited access are falling behind.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, roughly 59% of lower-income parents said their children faced digital barriers to completing their schoolwork. Almost half reported their children would have to do schoolwork on a cellphone. As many as 4 in 10 had to find public Wi-Fi, a more difficult task when libraries and other public spaces were forced to close.
Students with access challenges were already at a disadvantage. In early 2020, a study from Michigan State University showed that students without internet or computer access at home had grades a half-point lower than their more connected peers. Students with less access were also less likely to attend a college or university and performed less well on standardized tests.
Research shows that remote learning during the pandemic exacerbated these issues. Failing grades increased among at-risk students. Students of color, more likely to experience access issues, fell further behind than their white counterparts, according to research from McKinsey & Company.
Seeing the digital divide's dramatic effect on students, school districts began stepping up to increase digital equity.
One of the best-known initiatives has been Chicago Connected. Partnering with businesses, government departments, and non-profit organizations, the city of Chicago set out to provide free internet access to public school students in need.
So far, 40,000 families have enrolled in the program, and many other districts, states, and federal agencies have stepped up similar efforts. In New York, the Digital Promise commission established ConnectEd NY, a statewide initiative to provide connectivity and devices to families in need.
At the state level, governors allocated millions to connecting their most vulnerable students. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson allocated $10 million to buy 20,000 hotspot devices for students. In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont oversaw the distribution of 44,000 home internet connections and 144,000 laptops.
Also, in June 2021, the Federal Communications Commission made $7.17 billion available by application. Schools and libraries could access these funds to buy computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other connectivity supplies for students in need of access.
McKinsey reports that access gaps narrowed during the pandemic, largely thanks to these efforts. But the struggle isn't over, and students aren't the only ones who benefit from expanded access.
Thankfully, government agencies have realized the continuing need for access, resulting in statewide and federal efforts to expand high-speed internet.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Pew Research's report shows a 9-percentage-point increase in home broadband penetration for rural Americans between 2016 and 2021. But more work remains to be done, and efforts continue.
In May of 2021, Ohio created the Residential Broadband Expansion Grant program, which helps cover construction costs for communities in need of access. Ten months later, the state launched grant-funded projects that would bring access to almost 100,000 households.
In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper has announced a billion-dollar initiative to bring internet access to residents statewide. The plan includes $971 million in connectivity infrastructure projects in underserved areas, plus $50 million in digital skills training and $15 million in support for these projects. The private sector will also be involved.
The potential of projects like these, combined with the widespread problem of digital access, has inspired federal authorities to take additional action.
In November of 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will spend $65 billion to bring high-speed internet access to all Americans as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The legislation focuses on two primary areas:
Funding the buildout of high-speed technology in under-served and unserved areas
Providing reduced-cost high-speed internet to income-eligible households
The infrastructure expansion will happen via the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.
The program will distribute $42.45 billion to access buildout initiatives in all states and U.S. territories. It will allow states to receive large grants for building and improving broadband infrastructure.
Funded activities will include:
Upgrading or deploying high-speed infrastructure in areas with insufficient or no coverage
Installation of Wi-Fi in apartment buildings and other multi-unit residences
Programs to encourage internet adoption and develop digital skills
The plan sets minimum speed standards as well: download speeds of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 20 Mbps, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This represents a significant upgrade from the previously set minimums of 250-Mbps downloads and 3-Mbps uploads, established in 2015.
High-speed access advocates have been arguing against this minimum for several years, stating its insufficiency for the modern multi-user household.
The new minimum will make it possible to participate in the online activities that have become standards of the modern area — watching streaming video, engaging with interactive educational tools, and participating in video calls.
Just over one in three low-income households had trouble paying for broadband service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the best infrastructure can't pay people's bills for them — but affordability funding can.
The new legislation also supports the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which establishes permanent federal aid to make internet access more affordable.
Under the ACP, eligible households will receive a discount of as much as $30 per month for internet service, and that number goes up to $75 per month for households on certain tribal lands. Qualifying households will also receive a discount of up to $100 to purchase a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer.
Some households may even be able to get their internet service for free, thanks to the Get Internet program. Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon have agreed to offer 100-Mbps service for no more than $30 a month. Qualifying customers can use their ACP benefit to pay for these plans, bringing the cost to zero.
"High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer," President Biden remarked at a recent launch event for the ACP. "It's a necessity."
With more affordable and faster connections, digital equity will change the picture of learning and work for millions of Americans.
Lower-income and rural students will be able to keep up with their schoolwork and improve their grades. More educational resources will mean more opportunities and a better chance that the next generation of innovators will reach their potential.
Adults will have more opportunities to train and apply for jobs. Rural and lower-income residents will be able to enroll in online courses and certification programs, boosting their income potential and expanding their opportunities.
DIgital equity also means fairer access to the increasing number of remote jobs. Approximately 40% of U.S. employers allow at least some remote work, up from 22% in 2019. When underserved communities have access to the internet and quality computers, they can start applying for these jobs.
When asked about their productivity, 41% of remote workers said they could do more at home than at the office. That number increased as people spent more time working remotely.
Expanding access will allow companies to give workers more flexibility in terms of work location. Workers who lacked access in the past would be able to stay home to care for sick family members or take care of home maintenance tasks, and much more.
Digital tools, including advanced communications technologies, can help a company take its customer experience to the next level. Improved digital equity will help companies adopt these tools and offer better services while also improving operational efficiency.
Faster internet speeds will help workers perform tasks more quickly and efficiently, leading to reduced costs for employers and better output.
The summer of 2022 is an exciting time for digital equity. The Biden administration has given states until July 18 to submit letters of intent to participate. Initial planning funds will be available after letters are received.
Each request will require detailed five-year action plans, including strategies for meeting plan requirements. Plans will take time to get underway, but changes are coming.
Meanwhile, households can already apply for ACP funds. Access is available now — and only time will tell what it will do.
As we said at the beginning, “Digital equity seeks to close that gap and make the internet what it was always intended to be — a resource that levels the playing field and brings information to everyone's fingertips, no matter where they are.” By nurturing and harnessing the power of our collective minds, we all benefit in the end.