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Three Lessons We’ve Learned About Digital Inclusion From COVID-19

By Samantha Schartman-Cycyk

Did you know that 43% of the world’s households cannot take advantage of the educational and economic benefits of Internet access? Geographic and demographic gaps in digital access create a divide between the haves and have-nots which has been going on for years, but is painfully apparent in this pandemic.

This divide is happening in places that you might expect, as well as in places that you might assume are well-connected. For example:

  • In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellen, who lives in Chicago’s inner city, needs a home Internet connection for telemedicine appointments with her doctor. Because she relies on Internet service from her public library, which is closed, it is much more difficult for her to remain healthy while sheltering in place.
  • In rural Iowa, Cathy has no home internet access after her provider abruptly shut down service last year and no other telephone company was willing to invest the millions of dollars needed to wire the area with fiber – leaving her and her school-aged children unconnected before, during, and after the pandemic.
  • Across the globe in Malawi, Kwende lives in poverty in a country where only 14% of the population can access the internet due to poor infrastructure, frequent black-outs, cost, and low levels of computer literacy. If he had reliable internet access, Kwende’s quality of life could improve through opportunities for microfinance loans, telemedicine, and distance education.

As schools, work and social lives have gone online, we’ve learned a great deal about digital inclusion from COVID-19. This crisis highlights the importance of connectivity, but also highlights the areas where we still fall short. Here are three lessons that the COVID-19 crisis has taught us about digital inclusion.

1. The digital divide is real and more important than ever.

Many policy makers have swept the digital divide under the proverbial rug for years – likely due in part to the misconceptions put forth by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) reporting on coverage through the FCC 477 data.

While the ISPs self-reported full coverage when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the data showed what our communities have been telling us for years – that coverage is indeed not full and that there are millions of un- or under-connected households in the US..

As students turn to the Internet to learn and employees count on video conferencing and digital applications for remote work, it’s clear that the digital divide is real and is causing students and workers to fall behind.


2. Funding to build and extend access to underserved areas is inadequate, informed by inaccurate data and lacks vision.

First, there is not nearly enough – not by a long shot – funding allocated to provide true broadband service everywhere it is needed. And the current funding is distributed based on eligibility determined by ISP self-reported data that has been proven time and again to greatly overstate coverage.
This effectively drives funding and attention away from the shockingly large number of urban locations where coverage is not complete, impacting more people, and towards more remote locations. While rural locations also need to be connected, in times of crisis this policy does not provide a way to reorder priorities to fund broadband for the most people – but instead prioritizes geographical spread regardless of population impact.

Other funding sources are seeded within monies earmarked for other priorities – like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation. This restricts the connectivity effort to those people and locations in service of other priorities — not the priorities of the American citizens.

Also, the lack of separate and dedicated funding category diffuses the overall effort, and does not support all the activities needed to increase country-wide adoption such as funding support for skills training, and device refurbishing among other priorities.

3. The social landscape that supports digital inclusion is vibrant, committed and more active than ever!

People care about digital inclusion and the issue is receiving more press coverage than ever before. Organizations and businesses that support individuals across verticals from housing to banking to health and education are collaborating and aligning efforts to support their constituents who are directly impacted by a lack of connectivity during this pandemic.

While collaboration has always been a hallmark of digital inclusion, the current situation has amplified this activity exponentially. I have long recommended lining resources up behind a national smart-city effort and this could be the perfect time for this vision. Supporting and leveraging the digital inclusion programming infrastructure across the country to advance the goal of more interactions around online service delivery will inevitably save money, increase cross-sector collaboration and provide opportunities to collect and use community data analytics to make our relationships as citizens and residents of communities feel more connected and responsive.

As an organization focused on ensuring access to technology for all, we’re committed to ending the digital divide. During times like these, it’s critical that we come together in support of digital transformation across the country and around the world.