All it takes is a nationwide crisis to underline the most glaring equity issues our society faces. The one that has captured my attention during COVID-19 is the chronic lack of home internet access for people of color, low-income households, and rural residents.
That lack of access puts schools in an especially difficult position as they expand their use of technology during the pandemic, and beyond.
It’s important to remember that this technology challenge has been staring us in the face for decades. It is not just a COVID-19 issue—it is a civil rights issue of the utmost importance.
Three years ago, a congressional Joint Economic Committee report had already offered some numbers on just how pressing this problem was, ominously foreshadowing the obstacles K-12 schools would face during the pandemic: Roughly 30 percent of Black households, 26 percent of Hispanic households, and 35 percent of Native American households did not have a broadband connection at all, compared with 18 percent of white households. And in New York City—the nation’s financial hub—half a million households, including 38 percent of its low-income households, lack home internet access.
Smartphones can provide internet access to families that can’t afford or access broadband—often at the additional cost of a data plan or mobile hotspot—but nearly a quarter of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year don’t have one.
Clearly, connectivity is an issue of infrastructure and affordability. These numbers tell us, over and over, that the digital divide isn’t an isolated problem. It’s not only a rural problem or a pandemic problem. It’s a hardware problem. An equity problem. An economic problem. And an even bigger education problem than ever before.
Yet it remains.
In the world’s wealthiest country, these disparities aren’t just unfortunate. They’re alarming and unacceptable. The digital divide hinders far more than just virtual learning. It will outlive the pandemic without decisive action to eliminate it—a particularly unnerving prospect given the scale of learning loss and economic upheaval that the public health crisis has already wrought.
It’s time to start thinking about at-home internet access not as a troubling issue worth tackling incrementally, but as a civil rights emergency in need of a comprehensive solution.
All told, as many as 15 million of this country’s 50.7 million public school students lack adequate connectivity at home for virtual learning, a Common Sense Media survey found this spring. Stories of students doing schoolwork sitting in parking lots, struggling through slow connections, or simply forgoing school altogether weren’t uncommon. Students who couldn’t access the internet from home beginning in March lost months of instruction time with their teachers and valuable social time with peers. And it wasn’t just students—10 percent of the nation’s public school teachers also lacked adequate home internet access this spring, according to the Common Sense survey.
The digital divide affects children’s education in ways that extend far beyond the classroom experience. Teenagers without home broadband can’t easily research colleges and universities, apply for financial aid, find jobs, or locate volunteer opportunities. Parents in unconnected households lose crucial access to school districts’ reopening plans and student progress updates, as well as accurate public health information, opportunities to apply for crucial unemployment benefits, even virtual face-to-face health calls with doctors—no small issue as a deadly disease overwhelms hospitals nationwide.
Jobs that allow for remote work aren’t options for the millions of parents who can’t connect to the internet from home, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage for employment, further imperils the already fragile economy, and forces impossible dilemmas over the infection risks of sending students to school buildings. And adults that can’t register from home to vote may lose the option to elect their school board leaders, local and national representatives, and the president. In effect, they’re losing out on a constitutional right.
Large swaths of the population are absent from online discourse around the recent nationwide push for racial justice, which constitutes the largest social movement in American history, according to an analysis by the New York Times. For Black, Native American and Latinx people, being unconnected represents yet one more layer of oppression that became the focal point of ongoing protests. Federal, state, and local segregationist housing policies, discriminatory school funding formulas, limited access to generational wealth, and abusive law enforcement agencies have all contributed to shorter life expectancy, heightened anxiety, and generational trauma. Restricting access to the predominant tool for communication just adds insult to injury.
How did we get here?
Internet service providers often don’t see a profit incentive to build networks in sparsely populated areas. Consolidation among broadband providers has led to higher rates and lower performance in urban and rural areas alike. Getting all Americans connected also requires educating people who might not know where to look for an internet access plan, have the money to pay for it, or understand how to take advantage of it once they have it.
Journalists like me have been writing about digital divide issues for years. While researching for this essay, I found an Education Week story titled “Broadband Equity Targeted by Civil Rights Groups"—from 11 years ago.
It’s clear from my recent reporting that tools to permanently close the digital divide could be wielded immediately. It’s exasperating to watch them languish.
In recent years, the federal E-rate program has given students of color and low-income students more access to Wi-Fi at their school buildings. More recently, the federal government offered 23 Native American tribes grants to study the feasibility of building local broadband networks. During the pandemic, though, the Republican chair of the Federal Communications Commission has disagreed with one Democratic commissioner’s proposal to use those targeted funds to give students internet access at home, arguing that the law allots those funds only for connecting physical “classrooms.”
Some signs of hope appear on the local level, even if they are limited. Several dozen cities and towns have established municipal broadband networks, which compete with existing internet-service providers and drive down rates while expanding access. The city-owned fiber-optic system in Chattanooga, Tenn., “goes to every single house and every single business in our 600-square-mile area,” said Andy Berke, the city’s mayor since 2013.
"15 million U.S. public school students lack adequate at-home connectivity for virtual learning."
Here, too, obstacles stand in the way.
When city officials tried earlier this decade to extend broadband service at no cost to neighboring counties, the state went to court and blocked the FCC’s approval, arguing the federal agency had overstepped its jurisdiction and cheering broadband companies like AT&T in the process. This decision wasn’t an anomaly: Nearly half of U.S. states have laws like Tennessee’s that make establishing a municipal broadband network difficult or impossible.
Grassroots organizations across the country are already advocating on behalf of Americans without internet access, and they could use all the help they can get pressuring existing lawmakers and supporting candidates who prioritize broadband expansion.
State and local budgets are tightening, though, and they won’t be able to solve these massive issues on their own. The federal response to the home-internet access crisis, so far, remains disappointing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently offered $86 million in loans for rural internet service providers in several states to expand access. But a House bill that includes investments in broadband infrastructure has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate, and the digital divide isn’t a fixture of either ongoing presidential campaign.
However, nearly all educators see this issue as a problem in need of an urgent solution. According to a nationally representative survey recently conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 87 percent of educators say it’s very important for students to have good internet access at home.
To ignore the digital divide, and the generation of students suffering as a result, is to uphold the boundaries of race and class that keep American society hostile to tens of millions of its people. To tackle it head-on is to imagine how much better America could be if internet access were no longer a luxury afforded only to those who have inherited its privilege.
No longer would schools have to bend over backward for students who want to learn at home but don’t have the means.
No longer would a person’s ability to safely access learning opportunities, and the life circumstances they facilitate, be contingent on their means and the color of their skin.
Broadband access opens a gateway to generational progress that millions of Americans currently can’t enter. If the mission of education is to provide all Americans with equal opportunities to thrive, closing the digital divide is about more than simply keeping students engaged in virtual instruction. It’s about preserving the education that many students are struggling to receive right now—and affording all Americans the rights to which they are entitled, now and for decades to come.
Mark Lieberman would like to acknowledge Kim Haddow, the director of the Local Solutions Support Center; Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of Broadband Now; Ida Eskamani, public policy director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition; and Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Internet Access Is a Civil Rights Issue