As events are cancelled and facilities are shut down across the country, the importance of home broadband access has suddenly taken on a new urgency. The closing of our public and private schools has shifted our education system from an in-person to a learn-from-home model that is unfamiliar to most. Digital divide, digital equity and digital inequality issues continue to make headlines. But even with heightened discussion, there is little agreement on what should be done to improve the current state of broadband access.
There is much unknown in the era of COVID-19. School systems can only announce dates they hope to reopen. In the midst of this uncertainty we must question if administrators have any idea about the true impact this will have on students and their ability to advance to the next grade.
The youngest children are in critical phases as they learn reading and writing, basic math, and how to solve problems. Schools also provide an environment for expressing creativity and teaching basic social skills. On the other end of the K through 12 system, teens are studying for the ACT and SAT entrance exams. Missed lessons mean wrong answers on these tests, perhaps influencing their options and choices for college. The actions – and inaction – of today could have massive impact for the future.
Lack of access to broadband internet does not just impact education. It also has negative effects on the ability to provide public safety and emergency response; it limits opportunities for job seekers to apply for employment; it restricts access to government services and more. But the biggest impact during this crisis may be on what has been called the “homework gap.”
Richard Carranza, head of New York City’s public schools said, in an interview on CBS, that “some 300,000 kids don’t have electronic devices or internet access at home.” The city is ordering laptops from Apple and handing out WiFi hotspots to help those households that are lacking the basic equipment to get online. But the next questions will be: is broadband connectivity there to begin with, and will it be fast enough to support a video connection?
A 2019 Pew Research Center article focused on this very issue. At the time of their survey, only 54 percent of adults with annual incomes less than $30,000 had a desktop or laptop computer. Only 56 percent of those same low-income adults had home broadband. Tablet ownership was even lower at 34 percent.
Smartphone ownership was higher within this group at 71 percent. But the most challenging aspect of that statistic is that 26 percent of adults in those low-income households relied solely on their smartphone for internet access. The Pew study also showed this to be an increase from 12 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2016, indicating a trend toward more “smartphone-dependent” internet users. One result is that “reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens.”
The disadvantage to children living in [low income] households may be difficult to measure as this COVID-19 crisis is so new, but common sense would dictate that, in the absence of the opportunity to learn in a classroom, the current crisis will further hamper the education of children lacking the right tools. Add poor connectivity to this list and the opportunity to learn in a remote setting deteriorates.
During the past two decades, connecting libraries and schools has been a priority. Given the physical distancing required to combat COVID-19, those facilities are no longer available. This is forcing cities to examine new solutions to provide high-speed, reliable broadband internet. It is simply mandatory.
If cities want to be smarter, a good place to start would be understanding which residents have access to broadband and which do not. Without this reliable data, resources cannot be efficiently allocated to the areas where the problem is most acute. Toward this end, the most important questions city leaders should be asking are associated with availability, affordability and reliability.
One day, hopefully very soon, students will return to school and perhaps lives will return to a new normal. People can return to their libraries and coffee shops to hook into WiFi. But it should be noted that while the health crisis is temporary, the digital divide is not. The homework gap may lessen again, but it will not disappear. On-line learning will continue to grow as an important part of the educational experience for all students.
It is time to build upon this unfortunate set of events related to COVID-19 and ensure that communities use solid data to set priorities for the broadband future and work quickly and collaboratively to build more network capacity.
By Bryan Darr, EVP, Smart Cities at Ookla
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