The internet is often called the fourth utility, as essential to our lives as electricity, gas, and water—yet over 30 million Americans lack access, with some estimates even more bleak.1 In a study by the Pew Research Foundation, Microsoft estimated the number of Americans without broadband (internet access with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 2 Mbps) could be over 163 million.
The digital divide in America’s cities follows household income levels, further limiting opportunities for disadvantaged populations.3 The coronavirus pandemic brought this inequality further into the spotlight as some children completed homework in parking lots using the Wi-Fi from a nearby McDonald’s and some just stopped showing up to their virtual classes altogether. According to a recent study, nearly 30% of K-12 students lack adequate internet access for remote learning.
Remote learning is not the only aspect of modern life which suffers as a result of unequal internet access. Finding and applying for jobs also becomes more difficult. The inability of parents and guardians to work from home only exasperates the complications of virtual learning and child-care issues of working parents and guardians. Access to credit is limited and the inability to pay bills online leads to hours wasted waiting in line to pay utilities every month. Unequal digital access also costs the community. New York City, for example, estimates that with universal broadband across its 8.5 million residents—the city would see a $142B increase in Gross City Product, the creation of an additional 165,000 jobs and a $49B increase in personal income amongst residents.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought this issue onto the front page, but it has existed for decades. Let’s seize this moment to make the change our communities need and ensure equal internet access. A suggested action plan for tackling the digital divide is below.