The Digital Divide

Last month, I was getting ready to convene yet another meeting by Zoom. I got a message from a wealthy New York lawyer informing me that her second home in East Hampton, a beach area about a two hour drive from New York City, didn’t have reliable enough high-speed internet to handle Zoom. For us, it wasn’t a big problem – we rescheduled our meeting for the following week, and it was nothing more than a slightly amusing delay.

Shortly after that interaction, I was reading an article in the Times-Herald Record about a family in Fallsburg, New York, just 100 miles away from my Manhattan apartment. Although Fallsburg isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere – it’s within an hour’s drive from the US Military Academy at West Point, Vassar College, and the big IBM installation in Poughkeepsie – the family lacks high speed internet access and their children cannot access remote schooling, along with one in ten students in the county.

The longstanding inequalities in high-speed internet access are coming to a head now that this pandemic has moved so much of our lives online. In fact, while broadband deployment reaches 98.5% of urban populations, access falls to 77.7% in rural areas and just 72.3% in tribal regions. Actual adoption of the technology is even worse – only 73% of U.S. adults have broadband in their home, with adoption rates markedly lower for rural, low-income, and non-white Americans. This stark and harmful divide doesn’t have to continue. 

Our nation provided electricity and land-line telephone service to everyone when we decided they were necessities. It’s clear that internet access is now a necessity too. We need a comprehensive national policy for high speed internet in order to make sure no one is left behind by our new digital society. 

The broadband inequalities continue beyond childhood education and affect working adults just as much. Unlike me – I’ve been working from home since March – many don’t have the opportunity or technology to do so, putting them at a serious disadvantage in the pandemic economy. In order to get reliable internet access, they must commute almost as much as they did before the pandemic. The alternative – installing satellite equipment – is far from ideal: not only is the technology expensive, but the already slow connection it provides (which doesn’t work for quality video calls) fails altogether in heavy rain. 

The access gap is also exacerbating existing inequalities in healthcare, thanks to the ongoing shift towards tele-medecine, even as the pandemic makes healthcare opportunities all the more essential. In Manhattan, I can easily access both tele-medecine and in-person medical facilities, if needed. Meanwhile, many folks in rural areas are a long distance from any medical facilities, and they lack the necessary internet speeds to receive care virtually – a devastating one-two punch for this vulnerable demographic.

Solving this problem remains difficult because companies – driven by profits, not altruism – lack the economic incentives to build new internet infrastructure in these underserved communities. Some elected officials are pushing local telephone utilities to improve their cell phone service. However, a cell tower costs a couple hundred thousand dollars, making it more commercially feasible here in New York City, where that tower can serve thousands of people, than in Sullivan County, where the average population density is just 78 people per square mile.

Clearly, the supposed economic pressures of an unfettered free market will not suffice. Instead, the federal government must take concrete steps, like the Moving Forward Act, which would earmark $80 billion to deploy broadband to unserved and underserved areas. The act also would provide a $50 a month subsidy for low-income families to get online. 

I don’t want to live in a country where the most well off accumulate more and more, while those without remain trapped in devastating cycles of disadvantage. Congress must meet this moment by providing all Americans with equal access to education, work, and healthcare opportunities through desperately needed internet connectivity. 

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