These barriers aren’t new, of course. As opportunities in education, employment and health care have migrated online over the past decades, the “digital divide” has increasingly burdened Americans without access to high-speed broadband. These burdens are concentrated among low-income, rural and nonwhite Americans: More than 31 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home; 44 percent of adults in households making under $30,000 don’t have home broadband; and, even when controlling for income, black and Hispanic Americans still lag behind their white counterparts in broadband adoption.
The disconnectedness may force individuals to make devastating decisions and undermine the fight against the coronavirus. Low-income patients are visiting clinics in person, and increasing the risk of virus spread, because they “could not afford to use voice minutes to call ahead.” Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission has eased the strain on some by temporarily waiving certain rules on Lifeline, a program that subsidizes broadband and voice services for low-income consumers. The FCC also spearheaded the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, through which more than 550 companies have promised for 60 days not to terminate phone and broadband services of any consumers who are unable to pay their bills.
These initial steps are welcome but insufficient in a time when the strength of an Internet connection mediates access to critical information, remote work opportunities, remote health services and more. Perhaps most concerning is the homework gap, which penalized millions of students without computers or speedy WiFi at home even before the onset of this pandemic. As schools across the country shutter for weeks or months, these children — disproportionately poor and nonwhite — cannot employ the imperfect solutions they have relied on until now, such as using the WiFi in parking lots of fast-food restaurants to finish homework. In the emergency coronavirus relief bill, Congress ignored calls to appropriate sufficient direct funds for schools and libraries to provide WiFi hotspots for students without Internet access at home. More legislation is likely to follow; funding these hotspots for students should be a priority.
For social distancing to work, home-isolation has to be bearable for everyone. That means recognizing and addressing the needs of Americans who are the least digitally connected.