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Coronavirus Sparks New Interest in Bridging Digital Divides

Advocates and government staffers in the broadband and digital equity space say there is a renewed interest in supporting their work, with shelter-at-home orders emphasizing the need to bridge digital divides.

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Shutterstock/Piotr Zajda
Maine lawmakers recently approved a bond package with $15 million to expand broadband in the state, by a lopsided vote of 124 to seven. Gov. Janet Mills then went on to sign the bill the same day, with a provision added to fast-track a statewide vote for the June primary, rather than November as originally scheduled.

The action in Maine is part of what experts say is a wave of rejuvenated interest in bridging the country’s digital divide, which essentially means making Internet accessible and affordable, as well as equipping residents with technology and the skills they need to use it in meaningful ways. And it’s a wave of interest directly owing to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Indeed, the Maine vote came right as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation, just days after a stark and sudden evening that saw the NBA suspend its season and Tom Hanks publicly announce that he and partner Rita Wilson had tested positive for the virus. Soon after, government leaders the nation over issued mandates for non-essential businesses to close, and health experts stressed the importance of residents sheltering in place to stem the spread of deadly infections. As a result, the nation immediately found itself even more reliant on high-speed Internet than it already was, specifically reliant on access and connections in homes. Not schools, libraries or offices, most of which were closed.

A problem in parts of Maine and throughout the rest of the country, however, is not everyone has access to high-speed Internet, with gaps due to a range of obstacles, including lack of broadband infrastructure, prohibitively high cost or a poor understanding by potential users of how vital the service is to everyday life. Headlines swept the country about school districts trying to hold classes online, struggling because students did not have computers or Internet at home. In Detroit, for example, roughly 15 percent of public school district households have an Internet connection.

But it wasn’t just the schools struggling. The nation’s white collar workforce took to telecommuting, and many soon learned that their home Internet connections were slow, with their neighbors also at home straining bandwidth.

“What this public health crisis underscores is that broadband is critical infrastructure,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Research Initiative. “It’s foundational technology to so many things that we in today’s economy rely on every day.”

Amid the homebound social isolation of the coronavirus, society as a whole has never had so stark a reminder of why broadband matters and what life looks like for those who lack access. With that in mind, Government Technology recently spoke with experts, advocates and those working on broadband initiatives in both state and local government. What emerged is a picture of a resurging interest in closing the digital divide, as well as a host of predictions and suggestions around fast-tracking efforts.

An Outbreak of Awareness for Digital Divide Work

Angela Siefer has worked on efforts to ensure new technology benefits the entirety of the population since 1997, back before the field had nomenclature like digital equity or digital inclusion. Siefer, who is now the head of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), said in recent days that after the coronavirus outbreak, awareness for the work is “the highest it’s ever been.”

She pointed to three specific needs everyone has now that herself and others in the field have been spreading awareness of for years: working from home, using online resources in the service of education and replacing in-person doctor visits with telemedicine. 

Of those three, it’s the question about school — with students from kindergarten to graduate school unable to congregate in classrooms — that has brought the most attention to the need for broadband, technology and the skills to use that technology within every American household.

Indeed, nearly every major newspaper in the country has written a story in the past month about how school districts and students are unequipped to smoothly transition to e-learning, reporting on lack of high-speed Internet, lack of devices to access that Internet and in some places even a lack of parental understanding about why Internet is important.

Advocates have long pointed to education as one of the primary motivations to bridge the digital divide, using the homework gap — which essentially means the achievement gap between kids who have tech and kids who don’t — as the most relatable societal need for progress in broadband access, availability and skills training. 

The novel coronavirus has created startling and tangible evidence of the importance that is impossible to ignore, and not just in the education space. 

The nature of the coronavirus is such that senior citizens are at the highest risk of death. Seniors also inherently have the greatest need to regularly see doctors. An in-person visit to a physician for something as routine as a prescription renewal and a check-up could put these seniors at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Telehealth, however, can enable them to see their doctor without leaving the house. The problem is that seniors are disproportionately on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The other component to all of this is the sudden need for high-speed Internet in residential areas to conduct business as usual at home. What it all adds up to — said Pew Charitable Trusts’ de Wit — is a heightened sense of awareness in the need to close the digital divide.

“What’s different right now,” she said, “is these residential options are the only way people can work, or get online to take classes, or to interact with their doctors.”

Joshua Edmonds, who is the director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit, has certainly seen an uptick in interest in his work. Detroit has rapidly become a hot spot for coronavirus outbreaks, and with its low rate of Internet in the homes of school households, the need is perhaps more glaring there than in other parts of the country.

Edmonds said even in the early days of the crisis, he experienced renewed interest in his work, with stakeholders — both from the public and private sectors — showing a new eagerness to come to the table for talks than had previously existed. He has fielded calls from private-sector companies wanting to donate resources and calls from others asking what he could do with certain amounts of funding. All of this has created a strange and unfamiliar reality for his office, which has never dealt with an excess of funds nor attention.

It could, however, be a reality that sticks after the pandemic.

“Moving on after this, people can’t look away now,” Edmonds said. “We’ve reached a point of understanding that we all have a part to play here.”

The question now becomes, what can and should be done to close the digital divide after the great need of the coronavirus crisis has faded and passed?

The Push for Federal Action

Earlier this year, back when whether the virus would strike the United States was a point of contention among leadership of the federal government, the U.S. House of Representatives held its first-ever hearing on digital equity.

Relatively unheralded, this hearing took place in late January, within the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and it was dubbed “Empowering and Connecting Communities through Digital Equity and Internet Adoption.” Witnesses, including Siefer of the NDIA and Edmonds of Detroit, spoke about some of the issues that would soon become searingly important during the pandemic.  

They and others also spoke about their work, as well as what they thought should be done to accelerate fixing this problem. A key part of this is action at the federal level. Another witness for this hearing was Gigi Sohn, who was formerly a senior staffer at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is presently a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

While others have seen a reinvigoration in interest at lower levels of government, Sohn said it has also recharged the question of whether broadband should be regulated in the same way the government does utilities like phone service.

“Will this reinvigorate the question of whether broadband is a utility?” Sohn said. “It already has.”

Broadband being framed as a utility, of course, is a complex notion, one that deals heavily in the regulatory approach taken by the federal government, specifically by the FCC, which abdicated the vast majority of its power to regulate the broadband market when it struck down net neutrality protections toward the end of 2017.

That deregulation was a largely partisan move — as Sohn noted, the Trump administration has taken a “scorched earth” approach to all regulation, and this includes broadband. Sohn said it is important for the federal government to regain its ability to regulate broadband, otherwise a service that is “inextricably linked with the public interest” is liable to be dictated to the actions and needs of large private companies. 

In a specific sense, she said this means creating a way for the FCC to hold Internet service providers accountable for how they spend the federal funding given to them by the government. Any action on the part of the FCC, or Congress, seems unlikely to gain most traction, given the mix of partisan divide and pandemic response that is currently roiling almost the entire federal government.

There is, perhaps, some reason to be optimistic, and it can be found at a lower level of government, specifically at the state and local levels, where a recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts has found growing momentum for the work.

Editor’s note: This is a part one of a two part series looking at how the coronavirus crisis stands to reinvigorate broadband and digital equity work in government.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.