The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on distance learning and working from home has helped illuminate the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to high speed internet and devices and those who do not. Despite some evidence that the divide is narrowing, the dramatic shift to a virtual world shows a large gap still exists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people working remotely, getting treatment through telehealth and students attending school online, amplifies the need for consistent, quality broadband in all areas of the country. More importantly, those without access to broadband and devices run the risk of being left farther behind the longer the pandemic continues.
According to its 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that the number of Americans lacking a connection of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps dropped from 55 million in 2014 to 18 million by the ed of 2018. However, some challenge that the deployment numbers reported by the FCC are being overstated because the numbers are calculated by census blocks. If service is provided anywhere within the census block, then deployment can be counted, even if service is provided in only one connection within the census block.
In contrast to the FCC calculation method, a recent report published by Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group found that approximately 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students, or 30% of all public K-12 students, live in households without either an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning at home. Of these students, approximately 9 million students live in households without an adequate connection and devices for distance learning.
The digital divide impacts more than just students. The Common Sense report found that 300,00 to 400,000 K-12 teachers—roughly 10% of all public school teachers—live in households without adequate internet connectivity and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.
The digital divide is not limited to rural areas alone. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), using FCC data and the U.S. Census American Community Survey data, found that urban counties—those with few than 5% rural residents—accounted for more than 35% of Americans living in households with no broadband while rural counties—those with at least 75% rural residents—accounted for less than 8%. Looking at the numbers more closely, NDIA reports that substantial majorities of the residents in households without broadband in the urban data sets were people of color while 76% of residents in the most rural third of U.S. counties are white and non-Hispanic.
Furthermore, in New Mexico, the state Public School Facilities Authority reports that 23% of the student population does not have internet service at home. In Seattle, a leading technology hub, more than one out of five households with incomes under $25,000 do not have internet access where they live while nearly all households with incomes over $50,000 have internet access according to a survey performed by Seattle’s Technology Access and Adoption Study.
State legislators and other policymakers have been working to expand broadband access. In the 2020 legislative session, at least 500 bills address broadband. For comparison, in 2019, nearly 400 bills were introduced addressing broadband.
In response to the pandemic, to ease the financial strain of state spending on COVID-19 mitigation and response measures, Congress included $150 billion in direct assistance for state governments, local and tribal governments as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Known as the Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF), each state received a minimum allocation of $1.25 billion and local governments with a population of at least 500,000 were eligible for direct payments.
Provided the funds are spent by Dec. 30, states and other government recipients may use their CRF to expand broadband capacity for distance learning and telework if they are necessary for the public health emergency as specified by the U.S. Treasury guidance.