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Digital Divide. What is it? What are the consequences? What can be done?

Digital divide is used to describe the gap between people with easy access to the internet and computers and those who do not. Today, in the U.S., the term is used to talk about the gap between Americans with internet access and those without, particularly high-speed broadband (internet access with upload speeds of 3 megabytes per second (Mbps) and above and download speeds of 25Mbps and above.)

In the over three decades of the internet, digital access, smartphone ownership, and broadband adoption have grown significantly for Americans of all walks of life, including the financially less well-off. Yet, the digital divide has persisted and even grown wider. For decades, the digital divide had been a significant concern, but COVID-19 made those who lack internet access even more susceptible to falling further behind.

On the one hand, segments of society that already enjoy high speed internet – such as higher-income, educated families – are adopting new technologies more quickly and expanding their connectivity even further. On the other hand, those with historically low internet and computer usage rates continue to lag; the digital divide is growing at an alarming rate along already strained racial and economic lines.

Pew Research reports that in the United States, roughly a quarter of individuals with household incomes under $30,000 (24%) do not own a smartphone. Four out of ten adults in this low-income bracket have no computer or home broadband services. For households with $100,000 or more yearly earnings, having computers, tablets, and home broadband services is ubiquitous.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted long-standing digital inequities that have hurt low-income groups such as African American and Latino students. Since the pandemic, over 55 million students switched to online learning, with one in five teenagers, ages 13 to 17, reporting that they were unable to complete their assignments “sometimes” or “often” because of unreliable connections to the internet.

Around 12 million children were unable to access the internet at all. Only 67% of K–12 students had constant access to computers at the start of the pandemic. Many students in this bracket—particularly English Learners and those with disabilities—rely on schools for academic and social support, occupational therapy, and mental health care. They suffered a great deal after schools went online.

Consequences of the Digital Divide

For many years, the internet was seen as a luxury, and disparities in online access were viewed in the same light. However, today there is general agreement that technological discrimination is a type of social exclusion since it deprives certain people of critical resources for wealth creation.

You can see this by examining the global economy and the sheer number of jobs requiring digital skills and access. In the U.S, almost half of all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) job positions are in computing. One million of them remained unfilled in 2020.

A lack of access to training is a barrier to employment in this field and the money that goes with it. Its impact reaches many people in a variety of ways, including:

  • Isolation and failed communications – The pandemic has highlighted the isolation felt by those who cannot access the internet or have no digital skills. This can have significant secondary effects, including preventing people from obtaining appointments for coronavirus vaccination and restricting their job prospects.
  • Gender discrimination gets worse – The digital divide also exacerbates numerous existing forms of prejudice. Gender discrimination is one of the most prevalent. Women who do not have equal access to the internet cannot obtain an education or information that might help them improve their situation.
  • Barriers to education – As mentioned above, the internet is being used to greater degrees to deliver education across the country. Those who do not have access to the internet, including schoolchildren unable to participate in remote learning during the pandemic, may be shut out from developing their skills.

As the world becomes more reliant on digital technologies, these ramifications are likely to become more widespread. Societies must take a holistic approach to the digital divide, including recognizing its varied manifestations and adverse outcomes.

Projects Aimed at Bridging the Digital Divide

Several initiatives are currently underway across the U.S to close the knowledge gap and bridge the digital divide gap. They include:

  • No One Left Offline (NOLO), which Signalmash is donating 2% of revenue towards. One of NOLO’s projects includes teaming up with the Brooklyn Public Library to provide internet access to adult learners. They are also working with other organizations to close the digital divide.
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit initiative, the first and most extensive program of its kind in the United States. The new program will provide access to virtual classrooms, jobs, essential health care services, and other essential resources for eligible families.
  • In Southern California, San Diego Futures Foundation has joined hands with the City of San Diego to help close to 30,000 local households without computers get access.
  • In partnership with the Las Vegas chamber of commerce, the Clark County school district has created a free Wi-Fi directory that students can access when away from school.
  • The ConnectHome rollout continues. It aims to improve digital skills and access for school-going children from low-income households living in HUD-assisted housing.

What More Can Be Done to Bridge the Digital Divide?

While more projects are being created to help bridge the digital divide, there are things we can do individually, as corporations and as a community. To give you an idea of small notions that make a difference, we’ll share a couple things we have done.

The team at Signalmash has been in the telecom industry for many years. We have established relationships with phone carriers, internet providers and other telecom companies. We are currently in the process of connecting these companies with NOLO and other non-profit organizations that aim at ending the digital divide. Just donating ~$70 to a non-profit like NOLO is enough to provide a mobile hotspot to a member of the community. 

One other action we are taking is speaking to the state and asking for funding for projects that provide Wi-Fi hotspots to underserved communities. Together we can set up internet zones in urban areas so low-income families not only have access to the internet but also have the chance to learn essential skills and ultimately better their lives.

Let us know if you would like to contribute to the cause and help close the gap of digital divide. Email hello [at!] signalmash.com for more information or complete the contact form here.

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