To Close the Digital Divide, Congress Must Also Close the Device Divide

You are probably reading this on your computer, or maybe on your tablet. If so, consider yourself lucky – 1 in 10 people living in this country didn’t have a computer as of 2016. The “device divide” is one of the top reasons why individuals aren’t connected to the internet. That’s why it won’t matter how much Congress invests in connecting everyone to affordable, reliable high-speed internet (and it is investing a lot) — Congress won’t be able to achieve universal connectivity without making sure that low-income consumers can afford to purchase a device.

The Device Access for Every American Act, introduced by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), would get devices into the hands of those who need them. This legislation would provide low-income consumers with a voucher to purchase a high-quality computer or tablet directly from a retailer or device refurbisher. Each household would be eligible for two devices so that multiple members of the household can connect simultaneously. To help get the word out, the legislation also includes funding for robust advertising of these available benefits. This is a crucial piece of legislation that Congress must include in its forthcoming budget reconciliation package.

Without the internet, people can’t do innumerable essential tasks, such as applying for jobs, submitting papers for school or enrolling in government programs. People also can’t do those tasks without a computer or tablet. Although some households without a computer at least have a mobile phone, it’s hard, if not impossible, to do many of these tasks with a phone’s tiny keyboard and the data caps that are common on mobile phone plans. Consumers need a computer or tablet to meaningfully connect.

Unfortunately, almost 14 million households across the country don’t have a computer. These households are disproportionately low-income, elderly, or people of color. Across the country, more than 40 percent of low-income adults don’t own a desktop or laptop. Black American and Latino American households are more than twice as likely as white households to lack a home computer.

Many more households, including 32 percent of Latino families that are home-schooling during the pandemic, do not have enough computers or tablets for everyone. This forces families to make difficult decisions about who can connect and when. Families with multiple children might need to choose which child gets to connect to school each day. Alternatively, a child might have to skip an online class because a parent has a telehealth appointment, or a parent might choose to forgo an important, virtual job interview so that the other parent can work remotely.

It’s not that these households don’t want a computer; they can’t afford one. Thirty-one percent of nonbroadband users cite the cost of a computer as one of the reasons they do not have broadband at home.

That’s why, without a federal program to subsidize devices, Congress won’t close the digital divide. Period. For example, an estimated 6 million people have signed up for the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to give low-income consumers and those financially harmed during the pandemic a $50 monthly discount on their broadband. However, the number of eligible consumers is far higher. It’s possible that many consumers without a computer don’t enroll in this program to give them free or nearly free internet because they can’t connect to the internet without a computer or tablet anyway.

Consumers without a device also can’t take advantage of the myriad of public or private Wi-Fi networks and hotspots that cropped up during the pandemic. Although a picture of two students doing homework in a Taco Bell parking lot went viral last year for being emblematic of the “digital divide,” students without a computer probably can’t do their homework at all. While many communities are lucky to have libraries with internet access and computers, many low-income people, especially seniors, don’t necessarily have the time, resources, or ability to get to a library during business hours whenever they need to get online.

Pretty much anyone who does have a computer or tablet recognizes how vital that device is for almost every aspect of daily life. They also recognize how expensive these devices can be. That’s why 122 organizations recently submitted a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to include a device voucher program within the budget reconciliation package. A device voucher program, like the one proposed in the Device Access for Every American Act, will help low-income consumers to afford a device — and finally get online.

Congress is about to make a generational investment in our digital future. For these monies to have a lasting impact, they must address the device divide. If they do not, we’ll continue to have families that simply cannot connect, and as a result, fall further behind.


Jenna Leventoff is a senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit promoting promotes freedom of expression, an open internet and access to affordable communications tools and creative works.

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