The cost of digital disparity in a pandemic

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With the coronavirus lockdown, Americans increasingly are turning to the internet to obtain vital information, learn and work remotely and maintain social connections—except those who lack high-speed online access.

Geography plays a role in what’s commonly known as “the digital divide”; in many rural areas; true broadband access remains hit or miss. But geography is not the only factor; income is an even bigger determinant. Even with state-of-the-art infrastructure reaching most communities in New York, broadband access continues to elude those who cannot afford it.

While government officials in New York and elsewhere have talked for years about closing the digital divide, it hasn’t happened. As a result, some of our region’s most vulnerable populations are even more disadvantaged as COVID-19 has closed schools, libraries and workplaces, severely limiting broadband access for those who don’t have it at home. 

An elusive goal

Andrew Cuomo is only the latest New York governor to make universal broadband availability a top goal. Five years ago, when he launched his “Broadband for All” initiative, Cuomo declared that “access to high-speed internet is critical to ensuring that all New Yorkers can reach their full potential in today’s technology-driven world.”

Cuomo was echoing former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who a dozen years ago warned that “in a digital age, businesses, families and individuals who lack broadband access find their economic and educational opportunities limited.”

The website for Cuomo’s New NY Broadband Program claims it “has now secured high-speed internet upgrades for approximately 2.42 million locations statewide, which means 99.9 percent of New Yorkers will have access to broadband.” The site’s residential broadband availability map suggests this is an overstatement.

It is true, however, that New York has done more than a number of other states to ensure that broadband infrastructure reaches all regions. Nationwide, more than 21 million people lacked broadband service in 2019, Federal Communications Commission data show. Yet broadband access in New York still remains beyond the reach of those who cannot afford it.

Households without internet nationwide.

The gap in our region

An analysis of census data reveals that the digital divide in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region has narrowed in recent years. In the 2013 one-year estimates, 88 percent of households in metropolitan Rochester had a computer and 79 percent had broadband internet. In 2018, the most recent data available, those numbers had risen to 91 percent and 86 percent, respectively.

In the city of Rochester over the same period, households with a computer increased to 88 percent from 79 percent, while those with broadband service jumped to 80 percent from 63 percent.

The picture is less encouraging when the data are segmented by income. Regionwide, only 65 percent of households with less than $20,000 in annual income have broadband service; the share in the city is 62 percent.

Among those with household income of $75,000 or more—the higher end of the income scale—the 2018 data for both Monroe County and the city of Rochester show 92 percent to 96 percent of households have broadband service. (That’s also true in the more rural counties in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region.)

What these numbers reveal is a gap of nearly 30 percentage points that separates low- and high-income families. The digital divide here is not caused by shortfalls in the broadband pipeline; it’s a problem of affordability.

The pandemic’s impact

Disparity in digital access at any time creates an unlevel playing field; during a pandemic, with schools and businesses forced to shift to remote learning and telework, the disadvantage for lower-income families is even greater.

A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data detailed how school-age children in lower-income households are likely to lack broadband access, causing a “homework gap.” In a nationwide survey of more than 700 U.S. teens, Pew found that 24 percent of those whose annual family income is less than $30,000 say the lack of a dependable computer or internet connection “often or sometimes prohibits them from finishing their homework.” The disparity also is evident along racial lines: Pew found that one-quarter of black teens nationwide say at least sometimes they cannot complete their homework because they lack digital access.

The Rochester City School District, to its credit, has moved decisively to respond to the needs of students now forced to stay home. On April 6, the district launched a Chromebook deployment program that expanded an initiative started last fall. RCSD is one several dozen districts nationwide that are receiving Chromebooks and mobile internet routers from the 1Million Project Partnership. Created by Marcelo Claure, CEO of SoftBank Group International, it was established in 2017 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is “to help 1 million students reach their full potential by ensuring they have the devices and connectivity necessary to succeed in school and achieve their goals.”

Glen VanDerwater, RCSD chief technology officer, told me deployment of Chromebooks to students in grades 9-12 began in September. As of Tuesday, RCSD had distributed devices to 83 percent of the 7,202 students in that grade bracket. Of the rest, 7 percent declined because they already had a device, and 10 percent have not picked up a device.

Deployment for grades 6-8 began with the coronavirus outbreak; previously, the 1Million Project distributed devices only for grades 9-12. As of Tuesday, 2,220 Chromebooks had been handed out, or 38 percent of the 5,877 grade 6-8 students.

A Chromebook that’s not connected to the internet is of little value. To address this fact, the 1Million Project also provides MiFi devices, or mobile WiFi hotspot routers, with 10 GB of data monthly per MiFi. As of Tuesday, RCSD had received and deployed 2,000 MiFi devices. Another 5,700 MiFi routers are en route to the district.

The cost to RCSD for all this? Zero.

The 1Million Project Foundation is “a wonderful partner,” VanDerwater says. 

The equipment is being handed out at the Frederick Douglass Campus, 940 Fernwood Park, through Friday. Families who cannot pick up equipment at that site can arrange for delivery to their home. RCSD has been handing out 350 to 420 devices daily, VanDerwater says.

“Almost everyone coming in says, ‘God bless’ and ‘thank you.’ We are very fortunate as a district,” he adds.

The only other local 1Million Project participant is University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men. But other schools in the suburbs and city alike have taken steps since their doors closed to narrow the digital divide.

Uncommon Schools, which operates urban charter school Rochester Prep, surveyed students’ families to determine equipment and connectivity needs, says Barbara Martinez, chief media officer.

“Our operations team cleaned and packaged several hundred Chromebooks (we already had in our schools) and we used a courier to deliver the packages and monitor any that did not get delivered,” she says. 

For connectivity, Uncommon Schools was “able to get some families three months of free internet (from Spectrum).”

Adds Paul Powell, assistant superintendent for Uncommon Schools: “We provided families that didn’t qualify for the Spectrum offer repurposed hotspots we already had. At the same time, we began ordering additional hotspots (these were on back order for some time) that are now being delivered and distributed to remaining families who are not able to gain access.”

Not all low-income families have children in schools that are working to keep their students connected online. In normal times, digital disparity has been shown to crimp the earning potential of individuals in the labor force and the growth potential of businesses in economically disadvantaged areas. In the midst of a pandemic, those without broadband service face an even tougher struggle. Filing for unemployment benefits, searching for a new job, accessing health care without risking an in-person visit, ordering grocery deliveries or curbside pickup—the list of what’s done most easily and efficiently online these days is a long one. The coronavirus makes life harder for those who can least afford it.

What needs to be done now

Access to broadband internet does not guarantee superior student performance; the quality of instruction and development of good practices for student use of technology also are important. But successful remote learning is not impossible without it. Likewise, broadband access cannot guarantee economic protection for lower-income members of the labor force, but it can equalize opportunity.

As Geoffrey Starks, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, told Axios “Coronavirus, without some immediate changes being made, is certainly going to exacerbate the haves and have nots for who’s digitally connected.”

Another FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, who has described the homework gap as “the cruelest part of the digital divide,” in congressional testimony last month said, “I think it’s time for the FCC to talk about coronavirus disruption and how technology can help. Nationwide we are going to explore the expansion of telework, telehealth, and tele-education. In the process, we are going to expose hard truths about the digital divide.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the FCC has waived some requirements for its Lifeline program, which offers a offers a $9.25 monthly subsidy to low-income consumers. This is a good step, though participation rates in recent years suggest that many people who qualify think the subsidy is inadequate.  

Rosenworcel believes the FCC can do more. She says it should be “identifying how it can use its universal service powers to support connected care for quarantined patients and Wi-Fi hotspots for loan for students whose schools have shut and classes have migrated online.”

Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow in the Center for Technology Innovation, part of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Program, has proposed a creative solution: install WiFi hotspots in sidelined school buses and deploy them to disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

“(J)ust like the U.S. government is working to contain the disease,” she wrote recently, “we must tackle the broader shortcomings of not making digital access a national imperative.”

The next round of federal pandemic legislation ought to include money to help extend high-speed internet to lower-income families that lack it. States can play a role too; Albany could work with local governments to make broadband service more affordable for low-income individuals.

Make no mistake, this is the price of our failure to confront this problem sooner. As with emergency health care measures and economic relief, it’s a cost we now must bear.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

One thought on “The cost of digital disparity in a pandemic

  1. The Rochester Public Library stayed open on March 16 while every other library in the county closed. The reason? We knew that people were going to need access to computers, the internet and (yes) fax machines in order to file for SNAP and childcare benefits. It was one of our busiest days.

    Later that week, the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County loaned more than 350 MiFi units March 18-19, many to adults who were facing weeks at home with no internet access.

    Public libraries have been on the front lines of closing the digital divide, but we are now at a time when broadband is not a luxury but a necessity.

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