Bridging the Digital Divide

The FCC recently awarded $9.2 billion to a handful of companies to improve rural access to broadband. It’s an impressive step toward closing the digital divide.

Connecting underserved Americans to the internet is one of the most important equity challenges of our time. The pandemic has forced every American into a digital world, essentially making the internet a requirement for social interaction, employment, and, perhaps most importantly, education for children.

This reality challenges all Americans, but has particularly grave implications for communities of color and low-income people, who are less likely to have sufficient access to the internet. These groups are falling further and further behind without a bridge to the digital world.

Policymakers must develop a strategy to achieve true digital equity — where all people have the support they need to survive. This requires adhering to four key principles.

The first key component of an equitable digital policy is universal broadband access. All Americans — whether in rural areas or large metropolitans — must have sufficient access to the internet.

To accomplish this enormous feat, federal, state and local governments should continue to partner with private companies to invest in broadband infrastructure and use creative funding mechanisms as allowable by law, and tax incentives for private investment. In Ohio, $50 million of CARES Act funding was used to provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices to students. The City of Houston partnered with Comcast to use CARES Act funding to provide internet vouchers to low-income residents.

In addition to broadband access, policymakers must ensure equitable access to digital equipment.

Currently, access is limited for many Americans. One in four teenagers in households with an annual income below $30,000 lack access to a computer at home, according to the Pew Research Center.

Digital equipment should be standardized and provided to all students and teachers to streamline instruction and troubleshoot. A mobile device is not sufficient for full-time learning.

Policymakers must also make digital literacy a priority so that parents and guardians can assist learners in their language and with accommodations for differing abilities. But many Americans — particularly people of color — struggle to use technology. Twenty-two percent of Black adults and 35 percent of Hispanic adults are not digitally literate, compared to 11 percent of white adults, according to a 2018 study.

Finally, a successful digital strategy is not just about technology. It’s also about ensuring people have a stable learning environment to use the digital tools at their disposal. Children must have stable housing that is safe and includes continuous electricity and water and in-home meals. What good is broadband access if a student does not have electricity to power their modem or their computer? All the amenities and wrap-around services that are provided in schools should be provided for in-home learning or through increased access to socially distanced community centers.

Newark and Atlanta have leveraged existing facilities to provide community-based support for families. This is particularly important for Black and Latino families where parents may be in jobs that do not allow for remote work or supervision of in-home learning.

Further, video conferences have ushered in a new array of challenges to balance the privacy of families with the duty of teachers to report unsafe home environments. Accordingly, schools should also establish clear protocols around detecting and reporting unsafe home environments. Local officials should also work in tandem with schools to develop strategies around public safety that account for more students that are home during the school day.

Achieving digital equity can be a difficult task at the federal level. Fortunately, policymakers can look to the work of local governments that have led with creativity to increase equitable access to broadband. For instance, in September 2020, Columbia, S.C. partnered with radio and television influencer Charlamagne tha God to provide free Wi-Fi for students in need by leveraging donations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a massive digital gap in this country, one that leaves communities of color behind. It’s critical to develop an equitable digital infrastructure. Now is the time for policymakers to implement holistic equity-based policies that will eliminate barriers to virtual learning in the future.


Stephanie Mash Sykes, Esq. is the founding executive director and general counsel of the African American Mayors Association.

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