COVID and the Digital Divide

Should children really have to go to school in parking lot Wi-Fi zones? The virus has clarified the case for action.

By Micah L. Sifry

Tagged ChildrencoronavirusInequalitypandemicSchoolsThe Internet

In mid-April, as the COVID-19 pandemic crested in the northeastern United States, the School District of Philadelphia put out an advisory to parents letting them know that, among a variety of free or low-cost options for getting their kids online, they could use “parking lot” Wi-Fi. That is, the district said, “Wi-Fi access that is accessible around the exterior of a building such as a school or library–and generally reachable from the facility’s parking lot.” The school superintendent quickly backpedaled after a local paper reported pushback from teachers and parents. One North Philly special education teacher said parents were outraged at the suggestion. “You expect me to have my kid sitting in a parking lot with a laptop?” she recalled one parent saying. “In a community where there are high rates of community violence, we’re asking kids to be sitting ducks with pieces of technology that people could steal from them,” the teacher told Michaela Winberg of Billy Penn, noting, as well, that four of her 25 students lacked Internet at home.

This shouldn’t have been news. For years, children in cities and rural areas alike have sat on library steps and in McDonald’s parking lots to get access to the Internet after school hours; the only thing that changed last spring is that a big city school district briefly made that part of its official policy. While the ability to connect to the Internet has become essential, a widening swath of Americans has been left behind. Pew Research found in 2018 that nearly 20 percent of teens nationwide couldn’t finish their homework because of poor access to high-speed broadband. A third said they often or sometimes had to do their homework on their cellphone. A 2020 state-level survey of students in Michigan found that those who did not have access to the Internet from home or were dependent on a cell phone for access performed lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average. They were also less likely to plan to attend college.

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s rosy annual broadband report, in 2020 almost all Americans, 94.6 percent, have access to high-speed broadband service, which it defines as at least 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) download speed, 3 Mbps upload. Tech giant Microsoft begs to disagree. “Our data indicates that the number of people who connect to the internet at 25 Mbps is probably closer to 49 percent,” the company reported in 2018. “One reason for this discrepancy,” Microsoft explained, “lies in the fact that FCC data is based on census blocks, which are the smallest geographic unit used by the US Census Bureau (although some are quite large—the biggest, in Alaska, is more than 8,500 square miles). If an internet service provider (ISP) sells broadband to a single customer in a census block, the FCC counts the entire block as having service.”

Access to high-speed broadband, of course, is meaningless if it’s not affordable. The average price of broadband in America is about $60/month (double or triple the price in most of the rest of the world, by the way). Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t even own a smartphone, Pew reports. More than four-in-ten of those households don’t have home broadband services (44 percent) or a traditional computer (46 percent).

That was the context in which we entered the COVID-19 crisis. With many millions of Americans forced to shelter at home for months, we have experienced an object lesson in how dependent we are on ubiquitous digital services, and how poorly that essential resource is distributed. Tech companies and the big telecommunications conglomerates stepped in to fill some gaps, but corporate charity is not a meaningful solution to this problem. In California, for example, Google donated 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to the state to give to poor students; it was, at best, enough drops to fill half a bucket. A grateful Governor Gavin Newsom welcomed the gift, but admitted that “we need more Googles” to show up to meet all the need. In New York City, where 18 percent of residents lack either home broadband or a mobile connection, the Department of Education (DOE) lent out 300,000 iPads donated by Apple and refurbished by IBM. Still, according to the department’s own statistics, at least 128,000 of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, during the course of a typical week in mid-May, failed to check in online. When asked by a city council committee how many students were actually receiving online instruction, the DOE admitted it had no idea.

In keeping with the burst of corporate charity that accompanied the COVID-19 shutdowns, cable companies expanded temporary offerings of free, low-grade Internet service, with Comcast magically increasing the speed of its “Internet Essentials” package from 15 Mbps (down)/2 Mbps (up) to 25/3 at no extra charge. That may sound great, and indeed the 25/3 standard meets the FCC’s threshold for basic broadband. Unfortunately, video streaming tools need at least 4 Mbps for a decent upload experience. In a household with multiple people trying to Zoom for school or work, the FCC’s standard for acceptable basic broadband is a joke. And increased demand driven by the lockdown only made things worse. Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 3,100 counties in America weren’t getting Internet service meeting the FCC’s minimum standard in March of 2020, 10 percent worse than the month of February, according to M-Lab—an international consortium of network scientists that collects 750,000 U.S. broadband speed tests from Internet service provider (ISP) customers each day.

For years, people like one-time Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell insisted that dependence on high-speed Internet service was a consumer choice, not a basic public good that people can’t get by without. Asked about the digital divide at his first news conference at the FCC in 2001, he said, “I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one.” COVID-19 has demolished that argument, if it wasn’t dead already. Online services have kept many of us alive, connected us to loved ones, work, education, and health care; without them, widespread physical distancing that helped “flatten the curve” would be much harder to maintain. Now, as we look forward to the world we actually need, making highspeed broadband truly affordable to all is a vital form of infrastructure. Just as we need our highways, roads, bridges, and schools to work so commerce and daily life can proceed, we need broadband for all.

The public understands this better than most elected officials and regulators. Eight years ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated New York. Among the places ravaged by the storm was Fire Island, home to 500 permanent residents. In May of the following year, when Verizon announced that it would not rebuild the wireline network serving the island, which had been washed away, and instead shift service to its cellular network, people erupted with anger. They were upset because cellular service is much less reliable (and more lightly regulated) than landlines, which many rely on to do things like provide medical alert services, trigger local fire alarms, and process credit cards and ATM machine services. 911 service accuracy (which matches a phone call to its physical address) is required for landlines but not for cellular, for example. One man objected that without reliable wireline service, he had to make a four-hour trip twice a week to a hospital to have his pacemaker checked.

The outrage spread to small communities throughout New York fearful that Verizon would also terminate their wireline service. As Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a DC-based nonprofit focused on communications policy, remembers the episode, “Little towns in some of the most Republican places in the state started writing to the bureaucrats in Albany and at the FCC, saying to them, ‘please spare us from the free market, and regulate this thing and make it give us the service that we need because it is essential to our lives.’” In the end, Verizon backed down and installed its high-speed Fios fiber service on Fire Island. But there was something more to the outrage, Feld says: “People were angry. Angry that something essential to their lives, something that they were guaranteed by law, was being taken from them. ‘This is America, not some third world country!’ And, most importantly, ‘This is a Public Utility!’”

During the Depression, the federal government made it a priority to bring electricity to large parts of rural America, setting up the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which provided low-cost loans to finance a variety of development efforts. By the time Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, nine out of ten farms had electricity. Though the 1934 Federal Communications Act made a similar goal of universal phone service, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that loans were made available to ensure the development of rural telephone providers. Nonprofit rural electric cooperatives financed by the REA still provide power to more than 5.5 million households, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $34 billion since 2009 on strengthening rural electric systems and funding renewable energy and smart grid technology. Not as much can be said for the FCC’s efforts to close the broadband divide.

It is high time for a comprehensive federal commitment to provide affordable basic broadband service to all. In 2015, the FCC estimated that it would cost $40 billion to provide enough fiber-to-the-home to reach 98 percent of all Americans, and another $40 billion to reach the last 2 percent. Beyond providing capital, we need to clear away regulatory barriers in 22 states, which currently block or outlaw the development of municipal broadband services, a sop to the private cable industry, which lobbies heavily to protect itself from public competition. More competition would help bring down the cost of broadband, but in the same way we provide basic food benefits to poor Americans through SNAP, we should expand the FCC’s Lifeline program from the stingy $9.25 a month that it currently offers poor consumers to something closer to the full cost of basic broadband.

Considering that in the 2020 CARES Act, which passed through Congress faster than a dose of salts, the federal government gave $29 billion in direct grants and another $25 billion in zero-interest loans to the airline industry; $19 billion in direct payments to prop up farmers hurt by the pandemic; $17 billion for industries or companies deemed vital to national security; and hundreds of billions in cheap loans to businesses with little disclosure of who Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was showering with favor, we can surely afford to make this investment in our future.

Without it, the digital divide is becoming a chasm.

Read more about ChildrencoronavirusInequalitypandemicSchoolsThe Internet

Micah L. Sifry is the co-founder and president of Civic Hall, New York City’s nonprofit civic tech hub, and the author of several books on tech and politics, including The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet).

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