When the coronavirus sent millions of students scurrying to log on to online classes, an issue known to many families became painfully evident to the rest of the country. Wi-Fi and internet are luxuries that many people, especially persons of color and tribal communities, simply cannot tap.
Even before the pandemic struck the United States, one in four Black teens reported being unable to do homework because they lacked internet access. And now, the digital divide that the pandemic has spotlighted is not only hurting schoolchildren, college students and teachers, it is also making it difficult for their parents and grandparents to see their doctors remotely, grocery shop online to avoid a risky visit to a crowded store, and sign up for unemployment payments and online banking.
Long before coronavirus became a household word, “Digital Denied,” an analysis of internet access across the country, found this disturbing pattern: Poor whites in the United States have better internet access than poor Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. And consider these bleak statistics: Data from the Federal Communications Commission, which some critics believe is vastly understated, said that about 25 million U.S. residents don’t have the ability to buy broadband access because it is not offered in their communities. Rural, minority and tribal communities are particularly affected. Data from Microsoft gave a bleaker picture, estimating that 163 million residents could not tap in, even if they could afford it, because access was not offered.
Of course, having access but no computer to tap into it, makes access a meaningless promise. Again, minority communities are hardest hit. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of whites owned a personal computer, compared with 58 percent of Blacks and 57 percent of Latinx. And of those who have a computer, 79 percent of whites report having an internet connection, while 66 percent of Blacks and 61 percent of Latinx said they could connect from home.
The lack of access to this important link to modern life is not new, but its severity has been amplified by the pandemic. Yet the issue of internet connectivity does not appear to be seared into the public consciousness, instead lagging behind such issues as police misconduct, the chilling veneration of Confederates in town squares and in front of courthouses, and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the lives and livelihoods in communities of color and in particular, Black people.
But internet access should be viewed as a human right. It is a crucial element for any movement seeking to achieve equality under the law if for no other reason than it helps those movements spread their message and enlist new supporters. Yes, nearly everyone can be part of a message group on their phone. But those small screens still do not begin to allow advocates to tell their whole story.
The best way to make internet access widely available may be to turn to an old idea about what governments should provide. If the internet were treated as a public utility, akin to clean water, electricity and public transportation, and the right to a public education, then everyone would be able to sign up and get it at an affordable price.
The Federal Communications Commission, led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, insisted that its move to get rid of “net neutrality,” upheld in 2019 by a federal court, would actually benefit consumers and broaden internet access.
Net neutrality refers to the Obama-era regulation that denied internet companies the opportunity to treat customers differently and not speed up or slow down content. The 3-2 vote in 2017 by the FCC also revoked rules that classified internet service providers as public utilities.
The classification as a public utility is significant because it offered consumers a range of protections. It also meant that internet service providers could not favor one type of content over another. The pandemic has provided a counternarrative to Pai’s view and instead has provided new fodder to proponents of net neutrality who predicted that its elimination would actually worsen internet access for marginalized communities.
In Kentucky, for example, home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, the state is in 44th place in the nation for broadband access. There, a group of educators is urging Congress to take steps to enable better, cheaper access. “Lack of access to broadband internet is an inequity that has persisted for far too long,” they wrote in a recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier Journal. “We must ensure that all Kentucky families have access to the infrastructure that supports remote learning and remote work. Universal access to the information superhighway is necessary for all.”
The same could be said for many other parts of the country. “There are systemic racial barriers in the broadband market,” said Dana Floberg, who worked on “Digital Denied,” a report conducted by the advocacy group Free Press. “So many broadband providers require you to pass a credit check,” she said. “The credit industry also has a long history of systemic racism. The same is true with the various different contracts and set ups that companies offer. They can be discriminatory in different ways.” And even in rural areas populated by whites, Free Press’s data suggest that internet access is more available than in rural areas populated by Blacks. “Race may also be playing a factor in where internet service providers are deploying services,” she said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how essential broadband is to modern life, and how broadband will still be essential when this crisis is over.”
There is also a practice known as “digital redlining.” Internet providers in rural areas get government subsidies to connect communities, but there are none for providers serving urban neighborhoods. “Either we should build new programs explicitly designed to create competing providers in these underserved neighborhoods or legislation should require universal service standards or other anti-redlining measures enforced at either the state level or by the FCC,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior adviser to Public Knowledge, a group advocating for broadband access, in recent congressional testimony.
Data also show that the digital divide is a partisan issue. A Pew survey found that 52 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that there is internet access at home during the pandemic; 45 percent believe the government should ensure that people have cellphone service.
The FCC already has found in its own studies that the United States is lagging behind many developed countries in broadband speed. But a recent FCC report offered a rosier view: “We conclude that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” the FCC said. Congress is discussing ways to broaden internet access. Discussion should give way quickly to action — or the United States will continue to lag in this crucial time, and communities of color will continue to be left behind.