Tackling the Digital Divide in the Age of Coronavirus

Bill Patterson, Feb 15, 2021

Before the closure of schools and many businesses in March 2020, most Americans had probably never heard of Zoom. The video conferencing app soared into prominence as a result of “Safer at Home” orders, which transitioned many face-to-face activities into an online format. As a result of this paradigm shift from the real world to cyberspace, our invariably plugged-in society became even more virtually connected. One group of Americans was disproportionately impacted by this trend: the nearly 18.3 million Americans that lack access to broadband internet service [1]. It is important to note that as of 2015, the FCC defined broadband internet connections as those able to support 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. These speeds are only a fraction of the minimum speeds supported by most modern broadband networks, however, many efforts to supply internet access stop at these outdated line rates. The lack of access to broadband, particularly among lower-income and rural households, has been dubbed the Digital Divide. It is imperative that all Americans have reliable access to the internet, which can be achieved through clearing the way for Federal-State-Local partnerships, expansion of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and classifying broadband as a public utility.


The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the urgency of closing the Digital Divide. Perhaps the hardest hit group are school-age children. Out of the 1.1 million K-12 students in New York City, approximately 114,000 students live in shelters or unstable housing [2]. These shelters often don’t have Wi-Fi, and many of the students living there don’t have internet-connected devices, both of which are a necessity for attending online school.  Other students must resort to using smartphones, which makes doing schoolwork a more challenging task than it otherwise would be. Although many places, such as libraries and coffee shops, provide public hotspots where people can access the internet for free (that is, if these places even remained open during the pandemic), the issue of access to internet enabled devices persists. Many families that lack access to broadband internet also do not own these devices, as was found at the Nelson Avenue Family Residence in the Bronx, where only “15 out of 79 families had a computer or tablet” [2]. Although school children face one of the biggest challenges when forced to forego access to broadband internet, many adults who lack access are also struggling during the pandemic. The pandemic forced many government offices to close in person operations, at least temporarily, leaving many seeking to renew a driver’s license or file unemployment to do so online. Furthermore, states are starting to use online systems to manage appointments for administering COVID vaccines, which inherently disadvantages those who are without access to broadband. The internet has become essential to daily life for almost everyone, and those without access are unfortunately being left behind.


New York City attempted to solve the broadband and device access problems by handing out more than 300,000 tablets to K-12 public school students. New York is also investing $157 Million for “ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet, including $87 million redirected from the NYPD budget” [3].  However, this solution is an impossible feat for many smaller communities (such as many rural areas, which are the predominant areas lacking access to high-speed internet) that don’t have the same budgetary resources as a large metropolis such as New York City. This is where Federal-State-Local partnerships can make a big impact. Federal and State governments could provide funds to local communities looking to participate in buildouts of broadband infrastructure. Furthermore, many nonprofit groups that have been researching the digital divide have time and again pointed out that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is notorious for overestimating the number of Americans with access to broadband, and that state and local governments by-and-large are better at determining which areas are well-covered and which areas need access. It is therefore in the best interest of the people in under-connected areas for Federal, State and Local governments to work together to close the digital divide. Unfortunately, the telecommunications industry has stood in the way of such efforts in some states. In 1997, for example, Missouri passed a law (backed by the telecom industry) “that barred any political subdivision, including towns and counties, from offering broadband service to residents'' [4].  Similar bills have been passed in five other states, and although it was done ostensibly to preserve the “free market,” these bills are a way for the telecom industry to surreptitiously engage in anti-competitive practices.


Believe it or not, residents of rural North Dakota are more likely to have access to high speed fiber optic connections than residents of urban areas. This is a direct result of the dominance of small, regional providers, as opposed to the national telecom giants, successfully providing service to these areas. One of the barriers to universal broadband access has been an over-reliance on market forces in determining the expansion of networks. Unfortunately, letting the free market determine broadband expansion doesn’t work for rural areas looking to get access to the internet, as the cost of laying fiber optic cable in order to provide last-mile service to individual homes is seen by large telecom companies as too expensive for the small number of subscribers in the given area. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), “Despite receiving billions in federal subsidies from programs like the Connect America Fund, the national companies have consistently invested the bare minimum in rural areas while small, locally-rooted companies have leveraged similar programs to invest in maximum community benefit” [5]. Within the last ten years or so, FCC has tried to tackle this problem by giving subsidies to providers through a “Dutch auction” system, where the subsidies were given to the company which could expand access for the lowest cost. However, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which provided more than $4 billion for fiber construction [6], had greater success by giving funds directly to local providers looking to build networks to support their communities. According to the Brookings Institute, “the money went directly to broadband construction of 233 projects across the nation” [6]. Perhaps, then, in order to meet the goal of universal broadband access, a good first step would be to expand the BTOP in a major way and provide money directly to local providers, like the ones that have built world class fiber networks all across North Dakota.


Many of the people sounding the alarm about the digital divide advocate for the classification of broadband as a public utility. This is a somewhat nebulous suggestion, which can best be explained by analyzing the facets of Bernie Sanders’s 2019 proposal to do just that. First, declaring something a public utility acknowledges that it has become essential to daily life. This list of necessities currently includes electricity, water, and telephone service. It also gives the government more power to regulate the companies that provide this essential service. Under Sanders’s plan, ISPs would be compelled “to offer ‘a Basic Internet Plan that provides quality broadband speeds at an affordable price’” [7]. Prices of these plans would be regulated by the FCC. This article previously discussed the current definition of broadband from the FCC in 2015. Sanders’s proposal would set minimum speeds for broadband to be “100 Mbps download speed and 10 Mbps upload speed” [7]. Sanders also proposed using antitrust laws to break up companies that provide both ISP services and content, such as Comcast and AT&T [7]. By breaking up these large companies, which are next to impossible for smaller operations to compete with, we could see more small, regional providers entering the market and providing better service to rural areas across the United States, just like they did in North Dakota. This proposal also allocates $150 billion for states and municipalities to build their own “open-access broadband networks,” and ends the practices of “data caps and speed throttling” [7].  While all these proposals are certainly good steps towards the goal of universal access, a big byproduct of declaring the internet a public utility helps the wider population recognize that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, and that having large swaths of the population disconnected from it is untenable.


According to Pew Research, “public support for government assistance on [the digital divide] is relatively low when compared with other areas” [8], but it really shouldn’t be. Because everything from education to healthcare to food delivery and beyond has gone online, it is more critical at this point than at any other point to close the digital divide, and, as we have seen, market forces alone are not enough to bridge the gap. This article has explored some of the ways in which the United States at all levels of government can work to get everyone online, and why now more than ever every effort must be made to do so.


1. Rep. 2020 Broadband Deployment Report. Federal Communications Commission, April 24, 2020. https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-50A1.pdf.

2. Stewart, Nikita. “She's 10, Homeless and Eager to Learn. But She Has No Internet.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/nyregion/new-york-homeless-students-coronavirus.html.

3. “Mayor De Blasio Announces Accelerated Internet Master Plan.” The official website of the City of New York, July 7, 2020. https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/499-20/mayor-de-blasio-taskforce-racial-inclusion-equity-accelerated-internet-master.

4. Chamberlain, Kendra. “Defining Municipal Broadband Roadblocks.” BroadbandNow, September 6, 2019. https://broadbandnow.com/report/defining-municipal-broadband-roadblocks/.

5. Kienbaum, Katie, Ny Ony Razafindrabe, Michelle Andrews, and Christopher Mitchell. “How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota.” Institute for Local Self Reliance. Institute for Local Self Reliance, May 2020. https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-North-Dakota-Internet-Access-Case-Study.pdf.

6. Wheeler, Tom. “5 Steps to Get the Internet to All Americans.” Brookings. Brookings, May 27, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/research/5-steps-to-get-the-internet-to-all-americans/.

7. Gilbert, Ben. “Bernie Sanders Has a $150 Billion Plan to Turn the Internet into a Public Utility with Low Prices and Fast Speeds - Here's How His Plan Works.” Business Insider. Business Insider, January 22, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/bernie-sanders-internet-as-utility-plan-explainer-2019-12.

8. Vogels, Emily A. “59% Of U.S. Parents with Lower Incomes Say Their Child May Face Digital Obstacles in Schoolwork.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, September 10, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/10/59-of-u-s-parents-with-lower-incomes-say-their-child-may-face-digital-obstacles-in-schoolwork/.