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Some Encouraging Steps on the Path to Digital Inclusion

The pandemic's disruptions have raised awareness of the digital divide and energized localities' initiatives to narrow it. To continue making progress, policymakers need to make sure the funding is there.

Over the last six months, our country has had to adapt to a new way of life in response to COVID-19. Students are expected to learn from home, office workers are doing their jobs remotely, and support groups and religious services are being held online. While the majority of American families have been relatively well-equipped to make the sudden switch to the digital world, far too many have been left without the tools they need to participate in these crucial aspects of pandemic-altered life.

But while the digital divide remains a real challenge, it has been encouraging to see how some local governments are taking advantage of the disruption brought on by COVID-19 to make substantial progress toward digital inclusion. Some examples:

Seattle has been working to close the digital divide since 1996, and the city has recently launched initiatives, including the Digital Bridge pilot program, to connect low-income residents with low-cost refurbished laptops. Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Commerce has created Wi-Fi hot spots across the state, and the city has partnered with Wave Broadband to offer low-income households free home Internet for 60 days.

Chattanooga, Tenn., has made marked progress toward digital equity during the pandemic. The city and surrounding Hamilton County recently announced an initiative to offer no-cost high-speed home Internet to the 28,500 children who receive free or reduced-price school lunches — about 60 percent of the county school system's students. This 10-year commitment is possible because of a partnership among several public and private organizations, including the municipally owned Internet provider EPB. Similarly, Philadelphia is connecting 35,000 families with no-cost Internet from Comcast for the next two years.

In San Antonio, Texas, where an estimated 38 percent of residents lack home Internet access, the city recently pledged to invest more than $27 million toward closing its digital divide. The plan includes providing broadband access to low-income households through private wireless networks and using existing fiber infrastructure on traffic lights to connect 20,000 students' homes to schools' wireless networks.

Many other communities have made tremendous progress on digital inclusion this year, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has been keeping a detailed list of efforts. But major hurdles remain.

A general lack of public awareness of the extent of America's digital divide has long been a significant factor, but the challenges brought on by COVID-19 have drawn more attention to the issue. With remote learning becoming prevalent in many communities, many are coming to recognize that students without access to technology or the Internet will be left behind. COVID-19 will continue to be an important catalyst in spurring more action to bridge the gap.

But as has long been the case, a key obstacle is funding. Simply put, lawmakers and policymakers need to find room in their budgets to fund digital equity programs. This truth can be hard to swallow as COVID-19 puts immense pressure on state and local budgets. But investing in digital equity offers many tangible benefits: Formerly unconnected citizens can apply for jobs, go to school and even launch digital-dependent startups. Digital equity can galvanize these activities and lead to more equal, more prosperous communities.

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