In the Digital Age, it’s easy to assume that everyone has unfettered access to the Internet and is using it for recreational purposes such as social media. However, due to increased dependence on Internet connection for vital services such as healthcare, education and finance, the Internet is no longer a mere accessory to our modern experience. Instead, it has become an essential utility.
Despite our hyper-connected society, there are still large populations that do not have reliable or affordable access to the Internet, yet much of the population is connected at every turn. This discrepancy has been named the Digital Divide, a term coined in the early 2000s to describe the disparity in Internet accessibility between marginalized populations and non-marginalized populations.
The issues created by a lack of Internet connection extends far beyond a disconnection from the social. The effects range from an inability to access proper health care through telehealth, apply for and work jobs online to support a family, or pay essential utility or medical bills to stay afloat. The digital divide creates and worsens existing problems and endangers the livelihood and wellbeing of those who lack access.
The layered conditions for proper internet access create multiple opportunities for the connection to be broken. Infrastructure reaching the home, or last mile broadband, can only be used if the internet service plan is affordable to the household, which for many, it is not. There must also be an adequate number of devices for the number of people residing at the location. Lastly, many people are not taught the required skills to use the internet or the devices, including troubleshooting the often unstable connection.
An example to demonstrate the severity of this issue can be found in education. Due to the rise in partial or complete reliance on distance education in the pandemic, students have to use internet-connected devices to complete most, if not all, of their assignments and attend classes. Without a reliable connection or sufficient devices, their ability to learn and work is diminished, causing their grades to drop and their future to be jeopardized by it. 20% of students in the Los Angeles Union School District (LAUSD) student body still lack sufficient Internet access. Going a step further, the inability for students to connect for college applications, financial aid and scholarships, and the FAFSA can further hurt these opportunities. A student’s educational path has the potential to be completely broken as a direct result of insufficient Internet access.
One of the primary forces driving the rift in broadband access is the combination of the inequitable broadband market and government structures. Privately owned Internet service providers provide Internet where money can be made. This means that people who cannot afford Internet, such as low income populations or racial minorities, lack options from the service providers that fit their needs.This phenomenon is known as digital redlining, as the digital infrastructure mimics the racial and socioeconomic inequities in housing that redlining causes. Internet infrastructure is built in areas where Internet is highly profitable, such as in high income neighborhoods, and conversely, infrastructure is severely lacking in low income residence areas due to being less profitable. This is essentially an unintended mimicry of the historical divestment in communities of color that redlining initiated and continues to perpetuate, but intent is beside the point. Unintended harm is harm, and steps must be taken to reduce it.
Another contributing factor to the digital divide is industry capture. This refers to the fact that the industry of Internet service providing is not regulated enough to react to these disparities in access. Mostly regulating themselves, Internet service providers report data that often does not reflect the reality of the service they provide. The FCC collects data from ISPs biannually through a survey called Form 477. The self-reported ISP data includes average speeds and coverage areas, but the average speeds are their advertised rates, not the actual ones. In addition to this, if a single home in a census block has broadband, the entire block counts as connected, even though this is often not the case, especially in rural areas. This skewed map data is then presented to lawmakers without third party verification, and because that census block counts as having broadband, the entire block is ineligible to receive government assistance. Lobbying in legislative settings is also common amongst Internet service providers to represent the needs of their shareholders and create the conditions to best increase profit. ISPs spent over $230 million on lobbying and political donations during the 116th Congress. This often means that the community is not as represented in favor of the industry, even though legislation ought to serve the community. This lack of information and practice of influencing legislation often leaves those without representation to continue to be marginalized through a lack of this vital utility.
Narrative misdirection is practiced by using all this data and jargon and complexities of broadband to be weaponized against those who seek to change the narrative. In hiding behind incomprehensible language and technical nuance, and a firm belief in Internet service providers being the only ones to handle supplying broadband, both the government and the public are left dazed and confused over the state of broadband, as well as feeling powerless against these forces.
Through hard work and dedication, progress is being made toward decreasing the digital divide. Organizations are rising up and demanding change from legislators and industry alike, and those efforts have positive demonstrable effects on the communities that deserve equitable access to high speed, low cost broadband. Getting involved in local efforts and keeping up with policy is essential to advancing connection for communities in need. Shared Harvest will continue to explore solutions to promote digital equity.