For several months, The Patterson Foundation's Digital Access for All (DA4A) initiative has explored the state of digital access and efforts to get people connected at the national, state, and regional levels. The DA4A team engaged in enriching and insightful conversations with more than 30 national and state organizations and over 50 county leaders in the schools. From these conversations, the DA4A team heard reoccurring themes. COVID-19 did not cause the digital divide, but it has exasperated a pre-existing gap. Before the pandemic, people without internet access or connectivity relied on public places and local organizations to access the tools they need to apply for jobs, do class assignments, or schedule medical visits. When these places closed their doors to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, people were left disconnected.
After interviews and webversations with local and national thought leaders to explore why digital access is important and identify barriers, the DA4A team learned digital access has three essential elements. These three elements are connectivity, devices, and skills and support. Having all three elements is critical to digitally connect, learn, and socialize in a meaningful way. Often, these three elements are compared to a three-legged stool. Imagine the discomfort of having to sit on a stool missing one or two legs. Similarly, lacking one or more of these elements creates distress and difficulties for individuals and families.
The best way to understand these elements is to examine each one in more detail.
Connectivity is the ability to connect to affordable and reliable high-speed internet. Many people cannot afford broadband internet because it is too expensive. According to Hegle, "In 2019, the national average cost for internet was $72 a month, and more than $100 in some areas" (2020). Cost is a dealbreaker for many households, especially for ALICE (asset-limited, income-constrained, employed) families who struggle to afford basic necessities.
Another component of connectivity is reliability. People need reliable internet to do their daily online activities such as synchronous learning, working remotely, or telehealth visits. Learning, working, or socializing online is frustrating and challenging when your internet connection frequently lags, slowly loads a webpage, or repetitively kicks you out of a video conference (Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.).
The third aspect of connectivity is speed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency regulating broadband, defines high-speed broadband as a minimum of download speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps (aka 25/3).
The diagram above shows how most internet providers list speeds. Download speed, the number on the left, is how long it takes your computer to load websites and download files to display on your screen. Upload speed, the number on the right, is the speed that your computer can transfer or send information to the internet.
Internet speed is crucial because it dictates how you use the internet in terms of what you can do. To illustrate, consider this example. To get to a particular destination, you can walk, bike, or drive a car. No matter what you choose, you will eventually get to your destination. However, that could mean the difference between getting there in two hours versus 15 minutes. BroadbandUSA's speed demonstration tool visually shows how long typical internet activities take at different speeds.
The 25/3 federal minimum is considered high-speed internet, but it is a basic connection. Many of us need more than a basic connection in today's world for typical online activities, especially when more than one person connects to a device. With higher internet speed, people are flexible to engage in different online activities and use devices simultaneously.
Connectivity issues are not tied to a specific area or region; rural and urban areas experience their respective challenges. Many households in both areas cannot afford broadband or lack broadband infrastructure such as cable, satellite, fiber, etc. In urban areas, asset-limited households and communities may experience slower internet, whereas nearby wealthier households and communities receive high-speed internet service. Often, rural areas lack infrastructure, which means people do not have broadband available to them. Internet service providers may avoid building out broadband infrastructure because it requires a large capital investment and may have a low return on investment given the sparse population.
To engage meaningfully online, you need the right devices for your needs, such as a laptop, a desktop, or a tablet. Having a smartphone is not an adequate device. Leon Wilson, Chief of Digital Innovation & Chief Information Officer, from the Cleveland Foundation, calls it "The smartphone conundrum." When people hear the word "smartphone," they may immediately think about the latest iPhone or android while forgetting that a smartphone may be a prepaid smartphone with limited services in asset-limited communities. No matter how smart your phone is, it is not conducive to remote learning, remote working, or applying for social services.
Device sharing is also a challenge families experience. Many households have at least one device, yet it may be shared among multiple family members, limiting what each member can do within a day. Imagine a family of three where one member has to attend a Zoom work meeting, another person has to type an essay for class, and another person wants to stream a movie. This scenario reflects the reality of many families in America.
Skills and Support
What good is having a reliable, high-speed internet connection and a capable device if you don't have the skills to use it effectively? Skills and support are the training needed to use the necessary devices and programs for one's needs and the technical support to fix issues as they come up (devices not working properly, software updates, etc.). As society increasingly shifts vital services and activities online, people need digital skills to participate in society. Those who do not have these skills will, unfortunately, miss out on opportunities.
Employers now require skills that were optional years ago in the workforce and educational institutions. For example, digital citizens are expected to know basic computer and internet skills, which are described by Northstar, a program of Literacy Minnesota, as knowing the following:
● how to identify different parts of computer hardware, keyboard keys, and audio features
● how to navigate and use different operating systems (Windows or Mac OS)
● how to navigate a computer screen or an internet page
● how to interact with a website using buttons, hyperlinks, and toolbars
● how to create and use an email account and follow email etiquette
● how to protect your devices and your personal information online
Knowing how to use social media platforms and essential software like Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc.) and Google Workplace (Drive, Sheets, Gmail, etc.) is necessary to learn, work, and connect.
Digital access is the key to full participation in today's society. COVID-19 has created a sense of urgency to get people connected to access vital services. Individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and governments are working to move the needle on access to digital technology. Successful efforts such as programs, coalitions, and initiatives encompass all three elements: connectivity, devices, and skills and support training. One individual or organization is not expected to provide all three elements. Instead, there are opportunities for key stakeholders and organizations to collaborate and coordinate to provide these elements or ensure people are aware of available resources.
Individuals and communities benefit from having access to reliable, high-speed internet, an appropriate device, and skills and technical support. Digital access opens doors for people to excel, reach their goals, and achieve their full potential in this digital age.
Reference: Hegle, J. (2020, March 16). Latest news from the world of broadband.