By Haley Bailey | The digital divide has always been a huge issue, but the pandemic has managed to push it into the spotlight. For example, the International Telecommunication Union’s study, in collaboration with UNICEF, found that two-thirds of the world’s student population has no internet access at home, preventing them from accessing quality learning online. Similar findings have been noted in older age groups. After all, how can an employee work remotely if their area’s network infrastructure isn’t built well?
Fortunately, multiple sectors are trying their best to close the gap. Let’s take a look at some of their contributions.
As mentioned, education is one of the industries that has been hit the hardest because of the lockdowns. In fact, over 1.2 billion students in the US have been kicked out of the classroom last year, and not all of them were able to continue their education because of the lack of network or hardware support.
Luckily, several schools are ensuring that their students have access to both. For instance, Dr. Stacy Hollins started an initiative called “Tech Bar” where organizations in St. Louis can donate old hardware so she can send them to people that need it. Dr. Hollins is the former assistant dean of Maryville University’s online business program. “[It] not only affects education, [students] feel hopeless when they don’t have access to these technologies,” explained Hollins in an interview. She also highlighted how the internet has even become our main communication tool, which is why students need equal access to it. Other schools like St. Philip’s College and the University of Houston-Downtown have also started similar initiatives.
Telemedicine is an effective way to prevent people from catching the virus in healthcare facilities, especially if treatments can be given at home. However, this service was born out of necessity rather than innovation. In Medvis Jackson’s post, “The Digital Divide Will Make Us Sicker,” he mentioned how telemedicine services only proliferated when hospitals started filing for bankruptcy and the ones that are functional are overloaded with patients last year.
Even though we rely heavily on telemedicine and the internet to conduct healthcare services nowadays, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has access to it. Thankfully, steps are being taken to bridge this divide in the industry. For instance, the Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan and L.A. Care opened “telehealth hubs” in their community resource centers, which grant people without connectivity access to telemedical services. Health providers like Centene and CareOregon are also supplying phones and data plans to some of their patients.
The digital divide is caused by many things, but its biggest cause is the lack of proper network infrastructure in the area. This is especially true for rural communities, and it’s not because of the lack of network towers. “As soon as you get out of urban and suburban areas, into small towns, [internet] service and speed fall right off,” admitted Eric Frederick, the executive director of non-profit organization Connect Michigan. He said that this is because providers are reluctant to put up towers in areas that aren’t populated. It’s a good thing then that the government is now prioritizing network builds across the country.
For example, New York has invested $500 million into a new broadband program that will provide high-speed internet access for low-income households. Meanwhile, Michigan has secured $363 million in federal funding to do the same for rural areas. Other states like North Carolina and Washington have similar initiatives.
We’re far from truly bridging the digital divide, but the gap is closer than ever now. If we continue at this pace, there’s a good chance that everybody can be granted equal and affordable access to high-speed internet in the coming years.
Haley Bailey is a freelance writer who is a strong advocate of workplace equality and online learning.