Apr 21 2021

What Is the State of the Digital Divide?

The digital divide affects all citizens, particularly students and underserved communities. Governments are stepping up to close the gap.

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the digital divide in stark terms for both city residents and America’s schoolchildren, the Biden administration unveiled a $100 billion plan to help address the gap between those who have access to broadband and those who do not.

As part of its $2 trillion American Jobs Plan infrastructure package unveiled at the end of March, the administration is proposing plans to build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage, promote transparency and competition in the broadband market by removing barriers to the creation of municipally owned or affiliated broadband providers, and cutting the cost of internet service and promoting wider adoption.

As CNET reports, the plan is already getting pushback from the internet service provider industry, while receiving plaudits from those in the nonprofit and internet access advocacy community.

“The most important thing about what President Biden has done in the proposal is that he’s redefined the digital divide,” Larry Irving, a top telecom official who served in the Clinton administration, tells USA Today. “The simple act of recognizing that poverty is a bigger indicator of lack of access than geography is a huge statement.”

What is the digital divide? And what are state and local governments doing, along with the federal government, to help close the gap?

What Is the Digital Divide?

There are different elements to the digital divide, which in its most basic sense is a term used to indicate the disparity between those with easy access to high-speed broadband and those who lack it. However, experts say, there are multiple dimensions to the divide that are interrelated.

Blair Levin, a nonresident senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution who in 2009 oversaw the development of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, notes that all of the different aspects of the digital divide “require a combination of federal state, local, nonprofit and private participation in various ways.”

The first dimension of the digital divide is the availability gap, which describes a situation in which there simply are no available options for broadband where a person lives. “One is a lack of availability of internet access, where the wires simply don’t extend to the individuals’ places of residence,” says former Rep. Rick Boucher, the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

“This is largely a rural phenomenon, but it’s one of the major hindrances to development in rural areas,” says Boucher, who chaired the House subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet when he was in Congress.

On the availability gap, the federal government is “critically important for funding,” Levin says, because the fundamental problem is that “market forces will not fund networks to be built” in roughly 5 to 15 percent of the country.

The second major element of the digital divide is an adoption gap, which Levin says is a function of user readiness and a lack of digital literacy skills. There is also a clear affordability gap, meaning users simply cannot afford to pay for the broadband service that is technically available to them. The affordability gap is largely an urban and suburban phenomenon, experts say.

Levin notes that although the affordability gap gets the lion’s share of attention in Washington policy debates, the affordability gap actually affects three times as many Americans. A report released in February from BroadbandNow Research, a firm which provides independent data and research on broadband access and policy, found the FCC’s estimate that 21 million Americans lack access to broadband actually undercounts the figure by 20 million.

Tyler Cooper, the editor in chief at BroadbandNow, notes that “the access component is pretty key, but then even in the areas where you do have broadband service, kind of turning back toward urban areas specifically, you can have a pretty large adoption divide as well.”

The final gap, in Levin’s view, is a business opportunity gap, which is a measure of how many people are unable to fully participate in an economy that’s more inclusive and equitable via broadband and information services.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How are cities and counties helping school districts get students online?

How Does the Digital Divide Impact Education Within States?

The digital divide has been profoundly felt over the past year in households across the country with students in grades K–12, as students and their families adapted to the necessities of remote learning.

An October 2020 report from the National Education Association estimates that a quarter of all school-aged children — about 13.5 million in the U.S. — live in households without broadband access or a computer or tablet.

Researchers from Public Policy Associates reviewed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to explore the digital divide for students.

According to the NEA report, “inequality systematically tracks across historic divisions of race, socioeconomic status and geography.”

The report found the following, according to an NEA statement:

  • School-aged children in households that are below the federal poverty threshold (53 percent) are much less likely than those above the poverty line (79 percent) to have access to both broadband and a computer.
  • White school-aged children (80 percent) have better access than African American/Black (64 percent) or Hispanic/Latinx (66 percent) children. Just 50 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native children have full access.
  • Families who have a parent at home during times of remote instruction are more likely to have full access than those who do not (77 percent vs. 71 percent).

“The fact that it has been highlighted so dramatically at a time when there is remote learning and families that don’t have internet access are at a severe disadvantage in terms of having their children be educated at all, is one way to underscore the broader problem,” Boucher says.

Cooper notes that stories abounded this past year of students driving for miles to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to do homework in their cars, or students camping out in school parking lots to get access to hotspots that were established on an emergency basis. The digital divide affects students in rural, urban and suburban areas, he notes.

EXPLORE: How are cities forging partnerships to close the digital divide?

What Are States Doing to Bridge the Digital Divide?

State governments, in addition to governments at the local level, have taken concrete steps to close the digital divide over the past year, though experts argue those efforts were largely patchwork or emergency efforts and must be sustained in the years ahead.

According to the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance, states took actions primarily in four areas: expanding internet access, expanding device access, increased tech support and digital literacy efforts, and planning and coordination of digital equity efforts.

For example, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey committed $100 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to purchase internet service for low-income households with eligible K–12 students.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont launched a $43.5 million investment in remote learning solutions to close the digital divide in the state.

In Kansas, the Kansas State Finance Council approved $60 million in grants to improve state broadband infrastructure.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson set aside $50 million in CARES Act funding to help schools offer online learning and allow for greater use of telework and telemedicine strategies.

“I think the governors really stepped up and did a great job,” Levin says. However, he notes, the pandemic “accentuated an existing problem.”

Cooper notes that both the federal and state and local governments are “aligned with the same overarching goal, which is to bring every American online, and that feels more true now than ever.”

However, he notes, the federal government is positioning itself as a market correction tool, especially to accelerate the deployment of broadband in rural America. That will occur by creating incentives for private companies to deploy broadband at scale in rural parts of the country. That may include changing the definition of broadband to something approaching 100 megabits per second for uplink and downlink, which would help accelerate the move away from legacy technologies such as DSL that do not provide symmetrical broadband access.

At the state level, Cooper says, a lot of action will center on whether state regulations change to enable municipalities to create their own broadband networks.

“Everywhere we’ve seen municipal broadband networks put in place, we’ve seen that prices are lower on average and speeds are higher on average. Having that public option is a pretty crucial element, especially for areas that simply don’t have private competition.”

Rick Boucher Quote
This is largely a rural phenomenon, but it’s one of the major hindrances to development in rural areas."

Former Rep. Rick Boucher Honorary Chairman, Internet Innovation Alliance

What Are the Solutions to the Digital Divide?

There are as many recommendations for how to close the digital divide as there are policy experts, it sometimes seems.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently examined state broadband programs and found some common best practices for closing the digital divide. These include:

  • Stakeholder outreach and engagement to involve stakeholders at both the state and local levels.
  • A policy framework for broadband deployment that sets “well-defined goals and a clear policy direction in legislation and tasking agencies or setting up separate offices to lead statewide broadband programs.” Such policies identify and address “barriers to facilitate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas” and connect broadband deployment to “other policy priorities, including economic development, transportation, health care, and agriculture, to build partnerships and leverage more funding for expansion efforts.”
  • Funding and operations via “grant programs that fund a portion of the cost of deployment in these communities.”
  • Program evaluation and evolution that assess the performance of broadband deployment and incorporates lessons learned.

In terms of policy changes that could address the digital divide, those will likely come at the federal level. To address the affordability gap, Boucher advocates for changes to the FCC’s Lifeline program, which currently provides a $9.25 per month subsidy for low-income citizens to access broadband services.

However, he notes, it’s estimated that only 1 in 4 people who are eligible for the program participate in it. What’s more, Boucher says, many carriers have decided not to provide broadband through Lifeline because of the bureaucratic hurdles associated with doing so.

One way that the program could be reformed is to make the subsidy a direct-to-consumer benefit, Boucher says, the way the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), operates. He also argued that Lifeline should be funded via a direct congressional appropriation and not through fees collected on users’ telephone bills for the Universal Service Fund.

“Send the funding directly to the consumer and let the consumer go shopping among carriers,” Boucher says. “Then, more carriers undoubtedly would participate. That expands consumer choice. It operates to everyone’s benefit.”

Boucher, Levin, Cooper and others also advocate for investment in infrastructure to expand broadband availability in rural areas.

“As we think about infrastructure, we ought to have a surge of spending that future-proofs broadband everywhere in the United States,” Levin says. “And we need to have a sustainable program that is very different than Lifeline that enables people to have those mobile communications and in-home broadband.”

Boucher advocates for a “public-private partnership with cost sharing between the carrier and the government” to make it economically advantageous to build out broadband coverage in rural areas, which it currently is not.

Levin says despite the partisan divide that dominates Congress, there is a clear agreement that closing the digital divide needs to be a top priority.

“I think there’s a bipartisan consensus that America needs to do a much better job of closing the digital divide,” he says. “For a number of senators, it appears to only mean the rural divide and infrastructure. For a lot of other people, it appears to be a combination of availability and affordability or adoption.”

Getty Images/ BackyardProduction