We Must Close the Digital Divide

Americans have been forced to acknowledge stark and persistent inequalities across every aspect of society in recent years. While we cannot fix everything overnight, many in Congress are ready to close the widening gap between households that have broadband internet access and those that lack it. It is time to move forward without delay and get this right.

The Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that monitors and implements policy in the telecommunications arena, estimates that 18 million people in the United States do not have broadband internet at home, but the actual figure could be closer to 42 million, according to independent research.

For years, policymakers in Washington have known there is a “digital divide” in America. If you’re a family or household living in poverty, or in a rural area, there’s a good chance you don’t have access to fast and reliable internet service or, if it’s available, it may well be too expensive. Communities of color are much more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

This summer, the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of adults with annual incomes below $30,000 do not have broadband internet, while only 7 percent whose annual income is $100,000 or more do not have broadband service. Although much attention is given to the dearth of internet access in rural areas, the Brookings Institution estimates that there are three times as many disconnected households in urban areas.

The pandemic has widened and deepened this divide, especially for low-income communities of color. Social service provision, telehealth, business operations, accessing government services and job searches are all but impossible without an internet connection. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the digital divide concerns education. According to a by the Boston Consulting Group and the independent nonprofit Common Sense, when schools closed in the spring of 2020, an estimated 15 million kids faced the impossible task of keeping up with their schoolwork without broadband internet access at home. Our children deserve better.

Fortunately, a commitment to closing the gap at the federal level has had some success. With billions of dollars allocated to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and other initiatives in recent years, including the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which is helping to mitigate the pandemic by giving families direct subsidies so they can afford broadband, the percentage of people without access is declining. But there is still much work to do, and the time to do it is now. The FCC has a rare opportunity to tackle the still-dramatic gaps affecting Americans with limited resources and those in poverty-distressed areas.

During the summer, the Senate gave overwhelming approval to $65 billion for broadband access. The pandemic had clearly captured the attention of elected officials. The ultimate success of this initiative depends first on Congress’ final approval, then on the FCC and other government agencies being ready to move quickly in allocating funds.

Jessica Rosenworcel is now serving at the FCC’s acting chairperson, and the commission’s five-member panel currently has one vacancy. President Joe Biden should formally nominate Rosenworcel to serve as chair and fill the other position without delay. The cost of postponing a formal nomination is too great.

Not only is Rosenworcel an FCC veteran of over 15 years, but she can also be credited for coining the term “homework gap,” which refers to the fact that students without broadband internet at home are at an enormous disadvantage even if their schools are connected. In an interview last fall, she reflected on the grim reality that too many kids were forced to find a place to get online in the evening, sometimes in their school parking lot or a restaurant. She understands the nature of the problem, has long worked to address it and knows how to get the job done.

With COVID-19 cases and deaths now reaching levels similar to last winter as a result of the delta strain and vaccine aversion, the return to in-person work and education is slowing. More sobering is the prospect of this becoming a long-term part of daily life. We cannot afford to leave millions of Americans on the digital sidelines.

Internet access is also critical to promoting positive mental health. People living with mental health challenges face health inequalities and digital exclusion. During the past two years, mental health provision and information resources have been increasingly provided digitally, and this will become standard practice beyond the pandemic. Digital exclusion puts this population at risk of heightened or compounded inequalities. The digital divide also deeply impacts individuals’ ability to connect with family and friends, as well as tap into social support in times of need.

This issue is a matter of social justice. We, as social workers and social policy advocates, must make strides to ensure that individuals of all ages and income levels, and in all geographical locations, have access to, and the ability to use, the technological resources available to support health and well-being, promote civic participation and improve learning outcomes.

We finally have a chance to close the digital divide. Once the FCC gets the resources Congress has appropriated, it needs to have skilled and experienced leaders who care about these issues and who can ensure that the funds are distributed equitably. It will be a lost opportunity of historic proportions if we fall short because the FCC lacks the right leader when Rosenworcel is ready, willing and able to lead this massive effort. It is past time for the president to designate her as the permanent FCC chair if his administration truly wants to close the digital divide once and for all.

Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr. is head of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, and previously served as communications director and deputy chief of staff for former Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.).

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