Communication technologies have evolved to such an extent that they have become part and parcel of our everyday lives; the internet is a prime example. From composing emails to coordinating supply chains, our work culture is highly dependent on the internet. Yet, it is ironic to state that millions of Americans from rural areas to urban cities still lack internet access in today’s time and age.
The pandemic has further amplified this digital divide as the world had to embrace digital transformation at an accelerated pace, creating a need for affordable and reliable internet for all. This need for the day led to millions of Americans being unable to work from home, connect with their loved ones, benefit from healthcare facilities or attend online classes. Fortunately, lawmakers and internet providers are now pooling their resources and working cohesively to bridge this divide by all means necessary. Before exploring all viable initiatives undertaken, it is crucial to understand the digital divide prevalent in the US.
What is the Digital Divide?
The term “digital divide” was first used in the 20th century to address the gap between those who had telephone access and those who did not. Nowadays, this term addresses the unequal access to broadband between regions and demographics and encompasses the technical and financial ability to utilize available technology.
This divide usually exists between rural and urban populations, developed and developing countries, or young and educated people versus old and less educated ones. It creates a disparity between opportunities leading to many people losing education, healthcare, and job opportunities.
Current Stats on the Digital Divide
Pew Research has revealed the updated stats on the digital divide in its latest report. According to Pew, the number of Americans subscribing to home broadband service has increased from 73% in 2019 to 77% in 2021. However, a quarter of the population still lacks access to home broadband internet due to a few factors.
Many people can’t afford a home broadband internet due to the high cost of connectivity. Pew’s most recent survey reveals that 45% of non-broadband American users claim that the monthly home broadband service is too expensive, and 37% of Americans say the same thing about a computer’s cost.
Income levels also play a significant role in unequal broadband access, as 92% of households earning $75,000 or more per year have broadband at home. However, this number falls to just 57% among those with annual income below $30,000.
Similarly, age demographics also contribute to unequal broadband adoption as people older than 65 are less likely to have a home broadband service or a smartphone.
Government’s Initiative to narrow down the Digital Divide
The Government is finally taking bold initiatives to fix America’s fraying internet infrastructure. With the policymakers talking about closing the national digital divide for a long time, they are finally taking action by investing more than $100 billion in federal funding to bring broadband access to every American household.
This funding is to be allocated directly to the states’ governments as part of the American Rescue Plan Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, making it one of the largest public investments in connectivity. This investment has the potential to narrow down the digital divide by a significant margin. However, the planning and administrative capacities of the states are unclear, and we don’t know whether these states are capable of translating this opportunity or not.
Private-sector internet service providers deliver internet access throughout the country, but their limited infrastructure and prices leave many people without internet access. As of now, 24 million people in America still lack access to high-speed internet. To reduce this gap, Congress has given the responsibility to the states for effectively utilizing the federal funding with oversight from the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, every state will start the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) after receiving $100 million. The lawmakers expect the States to collaborate with ISPs to utilize these funds to their full potential.
Initiatives Taken by the ISPs
Many internet service providers are also taking various initiatives to narrow down the digital divide.
On its 10th anniversary of the Internet Essentials program, Comcast announced that it would invest $1 billion in closing the digital divide over the next decade. The ISP plans to include investments for supporting its Lift Zones, new equipment, grants for organizations that help low-income households, and continued support for the Internet Essentials plan.
The ISP also claimed that its investment was fruitful as Internet Essentials gave internet access to 10 million Americans over the past decade. They also claimed that they are further working to increase their network footprint in remote areas.
Midco, a regional cable internet provider, also partnered with FCC to bridge the digital divide in Minnesota. Awarded 1.34 million in the RDOF auction last year, Midco plans to expand its reach to a thousand homes, farms, and businesses in Minnesota. The provider promises to deliver its FTTP (fiber-to-the-premises) services that offer high-speed internet with symmetrical download and upload speed to these homes, farms, and businesses.
Midco also aims to bring high-speed broadband internet to underserved rural counties through its partnership with the Connect SD Broadband Program. The provider also offers low-cost internet plans like Midco Internet Basics School Program, Federal Lifeline Program, and Midco Internet Basics for eligible low-income households in its service areas.
Cox is another provider that has made tremendous efforts to connect and bring digital resources to families with school-aged children online through the Cox Digital Academy. Cox also pledged to bridge the learning gap by investing $60 million over the recent years, leading to many families gaining internet access with Connect2Compete.
Since its inception, this broadband adoption program has allowed 750,000 people to connect online by providing free internet service for the first two months and then charging only $9.95 per month.
Mediacom is another internet provider aiming to connect as many students as possible. It helps low-income households and students with affordable internet service by using Connect2Compete. This ISP also participates in a national, non-profit program, EveryoneOn, that partners with other various non-profit organizations to foster digital equity.
Mediacom also partnered with many school districts to provide internet access to many students throughout the pandemic. It is also the first provider in the US to make gigabit services accessible to an entire state; Iowa.
Although internet infrastructure is an essential element of the digital divide, it is not the only factor. Affordability and access also play significant roles. Lack of broadband access takes many opportunities out of your reach and reinforces social and racial inequalities. Therefore, narrowing down this digital divide is the utmost priority for policymakers as it is the cause of numerous social problems. The solution for bridging the digital divide goes beyond building the network infrastructure and requires collaboration between the government and the ISPs at the federal and local levels.