The events of 2020 put the digital divide into the forefront of the national conversation for perhaps the first time when overnight, high-speed internet access went from a “nice to have” to a necessity to access the basics of daily life. Suddenly, the gap between communities with internet access and those without was thrown into stark relief: those with access were able to quickly transition to online work and education. But the millions of Americans without internet access — or without the sufficient speed, devices, or digital literacy skills to use it — found themselves left out from work, school, and a multitude of services suddenly only available online — from telehealth, government services, and banking, to e-commerce, entertainment, and socialization.
A network of services sprung up to address the most urgent needs — from local school districts providing tablets to students, to emergency funding bills passed at the federal level that directed millions toward internet access for low-income Americans — which helped make high-speed internet access and internet-ready devices available to more people than ever before. But as the world continues to move forward into an increasingly digital future, it’s clear that work remains to be done.
Many remain unconnected — or under-connected
A 2021 report showed that 14.5 million Americans still do not have any home internet access. Even among households that are connected to the internet, under-connectivity can be a problem — that is, lacking internet speeds or devices sufficient to use the modern internet. A 2021 Pew study showed that over 40 percent of low-income American adults did not have home broadband service, nor own a desktop or laptop computer — technologies that are near-ubiquitous in higher-earning households.
To most effectively bridge the digital divide, connectivity must be affordable. In 2021, Congress passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since been expanded into the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). These programs help low-income households pay for monthly high-speed internet service, with discounts of $30-$75 per month, plus a one-time discount of $100 towards the purchase of internet-ready devices such as a laptop or tablet. In its first six months, the EBB enrolled over 6 million households in the U.S., some coming online for the first time ever.
Why high-speed internet adoption matters as much as access
Still, affordability is only part of the conversation — readiness to sign up for the internet is another. According to the FCC, more than 30% of the U.S. population does not have home internet service even though it’s available in their area. This means that even though some families have access to the internet, they aren’t taking advantage of it.
There are many reasons why, but digital literacy is one key barrier. Today, about 16 percent of U.S. adults are not digitally literate, meaning they don’t have basic computer skills. Other closely linked factors are household income and educational attainment: 14 percent of adults with a high school education or less do not use the internet, while use increases with education level. And adults living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are most likely to report not using the internet.
Making digital skills widely available may be our best bet to help combat the lack of internet use and narrow the digital divide. Dr. Brandy McNeil, Director of Digital Literacy for The New York Public Library and Director at Large for the Public Library Association, has made broadening digital access and digital literacy skills a key component of her mission, in part because she’s seen how the digital divide negatively impacts communities. “During the pandemic,” McNeil says, “I saw many entrepreneurs unable to maintain their companies because they lacked the digital skills necessary to take their businesses online. I saw parents challenged to support their child’s online learning. I saw older adults struggle with doctor’s appointments because they lacked internet access, or the digital skills to navigate it.”
Although the pandemic exposed digital inequities, it’s still an ongoing problem that needs addressing. Dr. McNeil believes that digital disconnection can exacerbate existing inequalities: “A lack of digital access and literacy widens the skills gaps and lack of opportunities, thus creating further inequalities and a lack of full participation in society.”
Digital access for all
Mylayna Albright, Assistant Vice President at AT&T, believes that broadband providers must also be part of the solution, and provide a “holistic approach” toward solving the digital divide by not only offering affordable service, but also increasing access and internet sign-ups. Toward that end, Albright says, AT&T has made a $2 billion, 3-year commitment to help bridge the digital divide and aims to “expand access to high-speed internet, make connectivity more affordable for low-income households, and encourage safe and effective internet adoption.”
The funds will provide low-cost broadband internet to individuals, and discounted service to educational institutions as well as provide charitable contributions through the AT&T Connected Learning initiative. As part of AT&T Connected Learning, the company also launched a series of digital literacy courses that teach technology basics, online safety, and digital skills. The courses are available free of charge to anyone online, and are also accessible in public libraries and at AT&T’s Connected Learning Centers nationwide.
AT&T developed the digital literacy courses with the Public Library Association (PLA) as part of PLA’s nationwide digital literacy initiative. Dr. McNeil believes that the reach of public libraries, and the trust they’ve established within their communities, make them invaluable places to spearhead efforts around digital adoption and literacy. “All people learn differently,” McNeil says, “but one of the biggest ways is by seeing and doing. This collaboration between PLA and AT&T allows libraries to bring in-person digital learning opportunities to patrons in the community.”
AT&T employees are also working to close the digital gap through volunteering, Albright says. “Employees are leading digital literacy workshops at our AT&T Connected Learning Centers in collaboration with community organizations across the country. They’re also mentoring and tutoring students in math, science and standardized testing and college applications. They’re working with organizations to distribute refurbished laptops to students who wouldn’t otherwise have a device at home for schoolwork.” Albright believes that the company’s mission around the digital divide is twofold: “Our efforts are about both giving families connectivity, and helping them see the value of that connectivity and making them want to stay connected and engaged.”
Digital equity has real-world impact
Dr. McNeil has seen both the negative impact of the digital divide, and the enormous benefits that digital adoption can bring to help reverse its effects. “I’ve seen firsthand the opportunities that digital literacy and access present — families able to stay connected because their grandmother took an iPhone class, a homeless person able to access the services they need so they can have more opportunities, a person who can switch careers because they gained the skills necessary to transition.”
Since the digital divide affects those who are already vulnerable, such as older adults and low-income people, an investment in digital access, adoption, and literacy is a critical investment in equity. “It all comes down to making things equitable in a place where there is already so much inequity,” says Dr. McNeil says. “Digital access and literacy is an essential part of life, and ensuring that it is available for those with different abilities, languages, and all ages is vital.”