7 Jun, 2021
4 min read

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The Impact of Access in a Virtual World
Bridging the Digital Divide in the Age of COVID-19

The internet has grown to become one of the most integral aspects of modern life. This year alone, the world’s internet users will spend a cumulative 1.25 billion years online.

While this is an impressive total, the reality is only around 59% of people are actually online and connected. It’s easy to call out the isolated and underdeveloped reaches of the globe to account for the remaining 41%, however, the truth is this problem hits much closer to home. 42 million people in the US have limited to no access to the internet. Nearly 3 in 10 people (27%), are living in rural places where internet connections are simply not possible, and another 2% are facing similar situations in cities.


This issue of internet inequality is commonly called the Digital Divide, and it is the growing gap between the disadvantaged members of society who do not have proper internet access; and those that do. This applies to multiple different factors, such as education, income, race, and geography. More often than not, these factors are not mutually exclusive, and many people fall into more than one of these categories.


While geography is a major factor in determining internet access, cost and income play a large role. Up to 44% of adults in households where the average income is less than $30,000 do not have broadband connections. These individuals have less access to news, online education opportunities, and many other luxuries that typical internet users don’t consider. Children are even more so affected by income, as 35% of lower-income households with children in school do not have a broadband connection either. These children are often left behind, as their peers are able to use online tutoring and other resources that are only available with internet.


Furthermore, 17% of American teens report that they are “often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection.” This problem is not limited to the home. It is estimated that 40% of schools lack broadband internet, affecting nearly 8.9 million students attending schools in rural areas.

The acceleration of technology also has the chance to possibly help (or worsen) the digital divide.

Many other people have internet access, but it simply isn’t fast enough. 163 million people who have an average download speed of 25 Mbps, and with these speeds, multiple devices and users within a household are unable to properly engage in both work and education activities. While usually just an inconvenience, the issue of internet speeds becomes problematic in today’s COVID-19 era. With current social distancing restrictions in effect, everyone has found themselves using the internet more for work, school, and social outlets.


While limited access to the internet has been painful for many rural people for years, it has never had more of an impact or implications that it does in the COVID-19 era. Many children simply cannot learn at home without the internet. Since the duration of COVID-19 is still unknown, many of these children could fall seriously behind. Left unchecked, this could have a large impact on the quality of future talent and the labor market. Over a quarter of Americans are struggling with basic expenses due to COVID-19, and for a lot of low-income families the internet remains a luxury that many cannot afford.


While this problem has been identified and well documented, the debate on how to help is still ongoing. However there are some solutions currently being found. Some teachers and school districts have distributed laptops, hotspots, and set up outdoor internet in the school parking lot to help.


Other districts have partnered with telecommunications providers to establish Wi-Fi hotspots near community centers like fire stations. Other telecom companies have started initiatives that offer discounted monthly broadband and computers to low-income families. Some companies are simply making donations to lower income school systems. Additionally, some state governments have offered millions in grants to broadband providers to help provide access during the pandemic.


The acceleration of technology also has the chance to possibly help (or worsen) the digital divide. Experts are currently debating on whether 5g will be a step in the right direction. While low-band frequencies like 600MHz will especially be helpful for speeds, some believe that it will do nothing to address the cost of internet access and will require many to upgrade to a more expensive device.


Alternatively, some are looking to the stars for an answer. With rapid advancements in Low Earth Orbit satellites, remote locations have a new possibility of fiber-like connections. Ector County Independent School District will be the first in the nation to receive broadband from LEO’s starting this month, starting with 45 families in the area. If successful, they plan to provide internet for all 135 families in Ector County in January of 2022.


The Digital Divide is a very real problem that has been exasperated by COVID-19, and it continues to affect many Americans nationwide. While the solution isn’t clear or easy, many companies and schools are doing their best to help level the playing field for people and families who lack internet access during these uncertain times.


James Glagola, Market Research Analyst


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