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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Health

Digital Disparities in the Time of Coronavirus

The pandemic is revealing the severe inequities caused by our nation’s digital divide. It is crucial that we invest now to address them.

Long before COVID-19 shut down physical campuses and banned in-person gatherings, my life as a graduate student relied heavily on the internet. Due to swift action taken by my school’s leadership, faculty and resources were mobilized to support a swift upheaval to virtual courses and community gatherings. In a matter of days, classroom discussions and extracurricular meetings for our more than 600 students and faculty transitioned to Zoom. Our new online life feels eerily normal now three weeks into the spring term as our community dials in from locations around the globe. Our shared ability to stay home and continue our studies is a luxury – a luxury extended by access to the internet.

Regardless of whether you are a student, the United States’ response to COVID-19 has dramatically changed how we all learn, work, move, socialize, and even vote. Right now, three out of every four Americans are under orders to stay home. While a significant lifestyle shift for most, this transition is made remarkably easier for those with access to high-quality, affordable internet. Whether video chatting with friends and family, streaming press conferences from government leaders, or just brushing up on cooking skills, being online plays an integral role in helping us all to continue to meet our needs in modified virtual ways.

In non-pandemic times, it is easy to buy into lighthearted ideas that internet access is not a critical service, joking that it mostly facilitates Netflix streaming, online shopping, and staying up too late. While these habits likely remain present during these times of social distancing, it is impossible to ignore that the internet now plays a consequential role in the ability to endure the many changes required to slow the virus’ spread. When stuck at home for weeks on end, internet connectivity can mean continuing to earn a paycheck, not falling behind academically when schools close, contacting a doctor at the first sign of symptoms, or staying up to date about health and safety recommendations. In the intensified context of a pandemic, internet access becomes a lifeline that enables these needs to be met. However, these needs existed prior to COVID-19 and will remain after it subsides, forcing us to ask the question: can we really continue to justify internet access as merely a luxury now that we know what all is at stake?

Those with internet access are privileged to be able to maintain a steadier life during these unprecedented times. But for an enormous segment of our population, at least 21 million Americans, inadequate access to the internet makes the current experience of staying home isolating and devastating, creating far more than just physical and social distance. Without virtual connectivity, it is nearly impossible to maintain any semblance of normalcy as an employee, student, or community member. All of us are likely to be changed forever by this phase of American life. However, our most vulnerable and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities will suffer far more intense and long-lasting negative impacts of this pandemic. The pre-existing inequities in internet access are playing an outsized role in furthering the underlying social and economic disparities that our nation’s response to the coronavirus is currently exposing.

Without internet, many were already economically and socially distanced

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus has shuttered businesses, closed schools, and suspended all non-essential activities of public life for the foreseeable future. While arguably no Americans are left unaffected by these changes, lower-income communities and rural areas face disproportionate disadvantages related to the coronavirus that are further exacerbated by lack of access to the internet. Known broadly as the “digital divide,” this gap in internet access between segments of our society directly limits educational opportunity and socioeconomic mobility in communities with lower income levels and in rural areas.

Even prior to COVID-19, many communities caught in the digital divide also faced substantial disparities due to inadequate systems, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of resources where the most promising solutions often heavily rely on internet connectivity. Communities with higher degrees of health disparities – those located in rural areas and on tribal lands, with lower education levels, and racial and ethnic minorities – are also less likely to have internet access when compared to their suburban, white, and more educated peers. In the face of a pandemic, virtual solutions like telemedicine and online learning have become a lifeline for many. Yet, the people who stand to benefit most from these solutions are substantially less likely to have the internet services necessary to access them. For those without the ability to connect consistently to the internet, the health, educational, and economic disparities already present in these communities only intensify. Without the adequate investment in internet infrastructure, many of these fixes are futile, leaving these communities to flounder and fall further behind.

In many of these communities, the entrepreneurial spirit of local leaders and engaged individuals have worked hard to create interim solutions to these problems – parents driving their children to McDonald’s parking lots to finish homework, libraries extending operating hours to allow for community members to access computers, to name a few. Now, with schools and other civic infrastructure closed due to stay at home mandates, many of these ad hoc solutions are no longer viable. Students are expected to keep up with their schoolwork while being stuck at home, many times unable to access assignments or interact with teachers. Parents laid off due to business closures are unable to file for unemployment online. Grandparents are unable to communicate effectively with healthcare providers using telemedicine.

For the millions of Americans without internet access, their adaptation in the face of this crisis has been anything but smooth. Individuals, families, and children – already at the social and economic fringes – are more distant than ever during this pandemic because our internet infrastructure fails to rise to the occasion. As we endure the current and forthcoming waves of COVID-19 or similar events to come, we must act now to position our society, especially the most vulnerable, to be more resilient in the face of a future crisis.

An investment in internet access is an investment in American resilience

The immensity of this pandemic’s reach has led to a scale of government response and investment never seen in our nation’s history. Immediate responses from federal and state legislators have focused, rightfully so, on enabling relief for the most pressing health and economic threats faced by Americans, resulting in the passing of the $2 trillion bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Nestled within the bill was around $400 million dedicated to supporting underserved populations and healthcare professionals to gain access to internet connectivity. While this appropriated money expands government programs already reaching underserved communities, it is widely agreed that even before COVID-19, the additional funding needed is measured in billions, not millions.

While legislative actions taken to date will help us weather the immediate impacts of the pandemic, the actions taken to invest in internet connectivity are not nearly enough to build a more resilient society and economy in the short and long term. Investing in internet access and infrastructure must play a major role in future bills. Otherwise, we as a nation risk widening the digital divide, thus furthering existing social inequalities and slowing our nation’s economic recovery instead of working to close it during one of the greatest periods of need in recent history.

Closing the internet gap will require substantial investment. According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) research, roughly $80 billion is needed to ensure high-quality internet access for all Americans. While the investment costs are significant, estimates from a recent Deloitte report suggest that for every day that a person is not connected to the internet, America loses $2.16 per person – or $130 million each day – in potential economic activity. With markets down and unemployment at historic highs, catalyzing our economy after the virus subsides will be a top priority. As we begin the process of rebuilding, the returns on investment in internet infrastructure and access will be more important and valuable than ever.

In recent weeks, both public and private entities have stepped in to provide limited temporary solutions to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai introduced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, where every major US broadband and telecom company committed to maintain internet access, waive late fees, and open public Wi-Fi hotspots for free for 60 days. FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks also publicly advocated for the redeploying of FCC resources to fund free wireless hotspots, increase telemedicine’s reach, and expand the FCC Lifeline program for low-income consumers. While useful in the short term, these solutions are barely lifeboats on a sinking cruise liner. It is imperative that Congress take substantial action now to ensure that longer-term solutions are put in place.

When Congress returns to session on April 20th, it is expected that they will draft, negotiate, and pass legislation that furthers COVID-19 relief efforts and economic stimulus. Legislators are already discussing bills focused on infrastructure aimed at jumpstarting the economy and providing employment opportunities. If Congress wants our schools, healthcare system, businesses, workforce, and civic life to restart quickly and be more resilient in future global shocks, investments in internet infrastructure and access will play a major role in creating this reality.

The next stimulus package must both include significant funding and sanction a diverse range of policy solutions that can address the digital divide comprehensively and quickly. Congress should expand access to programs like Lifeline and E-Rate so that low-income customers, schools, and libraries have internet access through ongoing financial struggles. Funding should be dedicated to improve data on internet access and availability to facilitate better planning and decision-making about which internet solutions make sense for each community. The federal government should put pressure on the 19 states currently restricting locally-owned internet networks to remove these laws and allow publicly owned networks to begin serving their communities. Additional money should be unlocked through intergovernmental agreements with the US Department of Agriculture and with state governments to accelerate investment and solution implementation. In a modern take on the Works Progress Administration and the Rural Electrification Act, our government could create entities that provide employment and incentives for communities to build new and modernize existing internet infrastructure, enabling investment while stabilizing unemployment. Regardless of the mix of policy solutions, the government must mobilize a motivated effort to make internet connectivity for all a top priority.

Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, our increasingly digital world left the millions of Americans without internet access struggling to maintain economic and social connectivity. The disparities amplified by COVID-19 make it intolerable and unethical to ignore the widening digital divide present in the United States. At this critical moment, it is our responsibility to ensure that the future brings more equitable access to internet connectivity – the resilience of our economy and society depend on it.

Edited by: Nagela Nukuna

Photo by: Sandra Seitamaa