Photo: Matthew Sauer

COVID-19 Lays Bare the Problems of the Digital Divide

Posted on June 20, 2020 by Matthew Sauer, Herald-Tribune Media Group
About a decade ago, the mayor of Sarasota was going to jump into a tank of sharks.

No, he wasn’t despondent about how his city was doing.

It was the classic publicity stunt, but aimed at a very important target: the ubiquitous search engine giant Google, which at the time was undertaking an ultra-high-speed Internet experiment.

More than 1,000 communities submitted applications to become the wired city of the future, with speeds at that time that were billed as 100 times faster than home broadband connections provided by phone and cable companies.

Sarasota didn’t make the cut.

The winner of the network was Kansas City, Kansas. The results? Mixed.

Years after the work, the Kansas City Star reported: “Even Google Fiber’s most ardent fans would likely concede that high-speed internet has not fundamentally changed Kansas City, as some thought it would.”

Sarasota and surrounding communities were on fire with broadband connection aspirations back in 2010 when, sparked by the Google competition, two of our senior reporters took a comprehensive look at the region, what it had and what it still needed.

But it feels like little has changed in the intervening years.

Sure, the technology has advanced, but COVID-19 has laid bare some of the weaknesses in the system.

When schools closed and teachers had to begin teaching and assigning remotely, many found it challenging to reach all their students or for their students to gain access to the family computer when there might be two other siblings in the house also needing to continue schoolwork.

The Manatee County School District handed out laptops for folks who did not have computers at home and parked buses with WiFi hotspots, attended by drivers throughout the day, in some neighborhoods. That was just to give socioeconomically challenged students access to the basics of the work they needed to continue.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota County School District also switched to an online curriculum, with students accessing lessons mostly through the online portal Blackboard and APEX, a program the district had previously used for students who had fallen behind in their coursework and needed to earn credits for graduation.

According to BroadbandNow, a Los Angeles-based business that bills itself as “a website that helps consumers find and compare Internet service providers in their area,” there are 220 internet providers in Florida.

The firm says there are 464,000 people in Florida without access to a wired connection capable of 25 megabit-per-second download speeds. There are a million people that have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch. BroadbandNow says another 280,000 people in Florida do not have any wired internet providers available where they live.

Broadband coverage in our region runs the gamut. Coverage means availability, not necessarily connections. Geographically, Sarasota County has 97.7% coverage; Manatee County has 99.5%; and Charlotte County has 94.4%. All three are fairly high demographic communities.

Now, look at agrarian DeSoto County. It has only 69.3% coverage, BroadbandNow reports.

Statewide, terrestrial broadband coverage stands at 92.4%, but only 59.8% of residents have access to a low-price plan, the firm says.

The Herald-Tribune and its partner, The Patterson Foundation of Sarasota, will be exploring these issues in a new effort dubbed “Digital Access for All.” These stories will address how people are impacted, find places that have ameliorated the problem and share how they did it and bring stakeholders together to see what can be done in our region — these pursuits accomplished through the partnership’s Aspirations Journalism effort.

Much like the partnership has brought attention to Census 2020 and the need for more people to participate in this decennial exercise mandated by the U.S. Constitution, Aspirations Journalism will be focused on Digital Access for All.

Reporters Emily Wunderlich and Andrew Meacham will bring you stories illustrating the issues we face as a region, particularly among folks who struggle with their finances, and find places that have done a good job of addressing these issues.

The Herald-Tribune and Patterson also will bring you the thoughts of stakeholders and experts in the field and, as needed, convene community groups to discuss the issue and possible ways to advance the region’s access.

A White House brief in 2016 noted a host of studies that showed that broadband access literally lifts all boats, increasing the number of jobs, promoting GDP growth, making distance learning easier and thus boosting education.

“As noted in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan (FCC 2010), broadband can provide other benefits as well, such as supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses, promoting energy efficiency and energy savings, improving government performance, and enhancing public safety, among others. In addition, broadband has become a critical tool that job seekers use to search and apply for jobs, as highlighted in more detail below.”

Sounds like an important issue, even a decade later.

And none of us need to jump into a shark tank to bring it to the fore.

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