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The digital divide: COVID-19 revealed why we must fix it

Easy, affordable internet access: Some people have it, some don’t. The gap between the two groups is called the digital divide, and our recent experience with COVID-19 amplified the effects on disadvantaged households when the world wide web isn’t just a few clicks away.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows 14% of school-aged children lack internet access at home, and 17 percent have no laptop or desktop computer available for online classes. At the onset of the pandemic, Black, Hispanic, or Native American families were even more likely to lack reliable internet service and/or a computer to use with it. Kids in nearly 30% of Black and Hispanic households have no computer access.

When things don’t click

What happens to kids without internet access? They face the risk of falling behind. Three years before COVID hit, one estimate noted that as many as 70% of teachers were assigning homework that required such access for completion. Before COVID, many children were performing internet-based homework at school or in public libraries. Once lockdowns occurred, these options weren’t available.

“Digital and economic divides among school-age children are linked to differences in reading and mathematics proficiency levels across states and between racial and ethnic groups,” noted Linda Jacobsen, a vice president with the Population Reference Bureau think tank. “Proficiency in reading by the end of third grade is an important marker of overall educational development but, beginning in fourth grade, it is also essential for learning other subjects and keeping up academically. Children who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to drop out of high school — reducing their earnings potential and chances for success.”

Sometimes access to the internet is there, but it’s not reliable. One person who participated in focus group research sponsored by North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) reported, “They (my children) can connect, but it’s hit or miss because we’re on satellite internet, so we might get prioritized, we might not get prioritized. They may get knocked off. They may not get knocked off.”

Or, the internet may not be affordable. Another focus group participant said, “The internet here where I stay is kind of hit-or-miss, and it’s very, very expensive. I pay almost $200 (a month) just for internet alone.”

COVID-19 taught us that schools must be mindful of such issues. As a Rutgers University Communications Professor, Vikki Katz, told USA Today, “It's not enough, especially in a low-income district, to ask, ‘Do you have internet access? Do you have a computer?’”

According to Katz, educators should ask more specific and appropriate questions, such as, “Do you have internet access that's fast enough for the things you need? How many times has that connection been disconnected in the last 12 months?"

“The inability to afford internet service is one of the most common and pervasive barriers to broadband adoption,” notes a North Carolina government website. “According to a 2019 State of Broadband In America report by BroadbandNow, only 39% of North Carolinians have access to 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed at $60 or less per month.”

The site also explains how much price matters. “A 2019 Oklahoma State University study found that only 20% of respondents said they were likely to purchase internet if it were $50 or more per month, while 74% indicated they would purchase it if it were $10 per month.”

How COVID helped

Ahead, North Carolina Governor Gov. Roy Cooper plans to help the state close the digital divide with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery package designed to boost the national economy. By 2026, North Carolina will invest nearly $1 billion in:

  • Infrastructure and access

  • Digital literacy

  • Affordability

Part of that spending will help underserved communities deploy broadband. The North Carolina legislature appropriated $350 million from the ARPA funds for the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant. Through it, eligible economically distressed counties can apply for as much as $4 million to deploy infrastructure. Applications are due on May 4, 2022.

Another $400 million of ARPA funds will go toward the Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) Grant program, which will allow counties that don’t get GREAT Grants to partner with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) to fund broadband in underserved areas.

NCDIT and the Broadband Infrastructure Office will help the counties develop scope-of-work documents for the procurement, construction, installation, and operation of broadband so that the counties can solicit bids from broadband providers. Counties may receive up to $4 million annually through this grant program.

For individual households, the Federal Communications Commission may be able to help with broadband expenses. The Affordable Connectivity Program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. Eligible households also can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

Low-income households that don’t currently take advantage of this FCC program should consider applying for it. After all, the internet has always been a great tool for people who want to surf for information, shop, keep up with loved ones, and more. Now, COVID-19 has shown us that internet access is crucial to work and school in today’s connected world.

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