During this time of crisis, with a worldwide pandemic claiming tens of thousands of lives and states ordering people to stay home, affordable, reliable internet is a lifeline for families living in America. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, reliable internet is a must-have resource that means the difference between being able to pay the bills or not. For students and teachers distance learning is not possible without a broadband connection. For people with serious health conditions, the ability to use telehealth resources could be the difference between life and death in situations where they risk exposure to COVID-19 and other illnesses by physically going into a hospital or doctor’s office. Though the need was present previously, this pandemic has truly highlighted the need for every person living in the U.S. to have a reliable and affordable broadband connection. Furthermore, we must pay special attention to underserved communities, which, at a much higher rate than other communities, find themselves without a reliable connection and ignoring this disparity could worsen the digital divide.
This pandemic has forced most states to close public and private schools, in favor of online learning, impacting millions of students who now must rely solely on a reliable internet connection to be able to learn. From college students who take classes online, to some elementary, middle and high schools who are doing lessons and activities from home, students across the country need a reliable internet connection to ensure they are not cut off from continuing their education. Despite this obvious need, approximately 19 million Americans still lack internet access, which includes students living in households without a connection. Without access to broadband in the home, disconnected students, particularly those from underserved communities, run the risk of falling behind and widening the digital divide and the achievement gap. Now more than ever it is extremely important that people have the opportunity to access educational resources online so that children can continue their education.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the percentage of people who work from home in the U.S. had been growing steadily. With the advent of this pandemic, employers who had previously not even considered remote work, have changed their teleworking policies to be less restrictive. Though there are no definitive numbers available, it is safe to say that there has been a massive shift to working from home as many companies, of all sizes, have instituted mandatory work from home policies and shut down offices in favor or telecommuting. A reliable broadband connection is vitally important to enable Americans to work from home. For those with the ability to work from home, it ensures the bills continue to be paid and keeps food on the table. For those without a reliable connection it can mean losing needed wages or even potentially losing their job. As more companies get creative about how to keep their workforce active remotely, it is important that connectivity does not hinder professional achievement.
Without question, internet connectivity has a huge impact on professional and educational pursuits and both of these aspects can adversely impact underserved communities’ ability to achieve success in an online world. But when considering access to telehealth, the stakes become even higher; namely potentially life or death. During this COVID-19 outbreak, those at a higher risk of death from complications associated with the virus, need to take every precaution to not be exposed. For any non-virus-related illnesses or issues, it would be ideal to be able to treat these groups, and really any groups, using innovative medical resources made available by advances in digital health. Remotely being able to provide medical advice, diagnosis, and fill routine prescriptions would cut down on the need to physically visit a facility. Additionally, since most serious, chronic health challenges our nation faces disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations, it is crucial that underserved communities are able to use telehealth for remote health care as well as patient and professional health-related educational resources. Many of these resources are simply not available without telehealth, or at least not in a convenient way. It is also very important not only to have access to these resources, but to ensure that the evolution of technology that provides for digital diagnosis and rapid testing to improve health outcomes is not hindered and innovation is allowed to flourish, which can also greatly benefit disadvantaged groups. In a world where the best way to curb the spread of this pandemic is distance, being able to take care of non-COVID-19 health issues remotely becomes extremely important, especially for those with factors that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19.
The list of examples of how undeniably critical internet access is, particularly during these challenging times, can go on, but it is important to also identify opportunities for solutions that can help meet these challenges. For example, it is encouraging to know that internet service providers are working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep Americans online, via the Keep Americans Connected pledge, and to find ways to meet the increasing demand for broadband. It is also important that local elected officials work with local communities to ensure all communities and families have the needed broadband connection and associated resources. We challenge all elected officials to get creative in how they ensure connectivity in their communities because they know the needs and demographics of their communities best. For example, some districts have parked WiFi-enabled buses in areas that lack connectivity. But that approach might not work in more spread-out rural communities. In rural areas they might need different hardware (routers, hot spots, etc.) for a household to get connected. If that is the case, underserved and under-connected communities need everyone from federal, as well as state and local, officials, to educators, parents, and corporations, to step up and be creative and innovative to ensure everyone is connected and access to broadband is not a determining factor in one’s achievement or access to healthcare.
Though the digital divide existed long before the COVID-19 outbreak, it will continue to exist, and likely widen, if we do not take affirmative steps to close it once and for all. We must do better in ensuring all people living in the U.S have access to affordable, reliable broadband Internet and associated technology resources. For too long, many Americans, particularly underserved and low-income communities, have found themselves unable to benefit from the many advances in the way we work, educate and maintain our health and have fallen behind in a personal and professional way due to a lack of access to the valuable resources offered by technology and innovation. Without access to affordable, reliable broadband Internet on effectual devices, where one lives and works, underserved communities will continue to find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Affordable, reliable broadband access is the cornerstone for underserved communities’ achievement and wellbeing in our modern technology-driven world and we must ensure all people can benefit from these critical resources.