COVID-19 Exposed Widening Gap In Digital Divide

COVID-19 Exposed Widening Gap In Digital Divide
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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide in the United States, dramatically affecting the ability of families and households without high-speed internet service to fulfill basic needs, such as health, education, and safety. Because the pandemic is unlikely to subside anytime soon, Congress and the administration must take bold and meaningful strides to expand broadband access for all Americans. An important step in eliminating the digital divide is to ensure that we have accurate national broadband coverage maps. 


Here, details matter. No one seems to have a true handle on the real numbers measuring the size of the divide. The FCC estimates that 18 million Americans lack access to broadband, but experts — even the FCC’s own commissioners — have criticized the agency’s flawed data collection and analysis practices. Meanwhile, BroadbandNow Research estimates that 42 million Americans “do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband,” and Microsoft estimates that up to 162.8 million Americans “do not use the internet at broadband speeds.” In order to bridge the digital divide, we need to be able to rely on national broadband coverage maps to paint an accurate picture of what is happening in our communities, especially in communities of color.


This issue is of particular importance to the Asian American community, which is widely assumed to lead other communities of color in home broadband adoption and internet usage. Studies on the demographics of broadband access, however, contain methodological and sampling problems, such as the aggregation of data pertaining to populations from over 20 Asian countries. Moreover, studies often require participants to be proficient in English and are generally designed to be completed online — favoring individuals who already have access to broadband. Many of these studies do not include the Pacific Islander population at all.


In reality, digital divide indicators — including education, income level, and English proficiency — suggest that significant broadband gaps exist among ethnic groups that make up our community. For example, 4.6% of Japanese Americans have less than a high school diploma, compared with 53.6% of Burmese Americans (2017 ACS 1-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau). In addition, whereas the median household income of Indian Americans is $114,261, that of Samoan Americans and Burmese Americans is $54,193 and $39,730, respectively. Finally, 18.7% of Indian Americans and 20.4% of Tongan Americans are limited English proficient, compared with 48.9% of Vietnamese Americans and 42.9% of Marshallese Americans.


In the context of the ongoing pandemic, a lack of high-speed internet service is consequential. In a remarkably short time this spring, COVID-19 took our movement towards distance education and telehealth and turbocharged that progress. Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide are falling behind in school, struggling to work from home, and unable to connect with healthcare providers. Even after the pandemic subsides, the importance of having adequate broadband is unlikely to change.


For the AAPI community, bridging the digital divide is not a panacea, but rather an important start to helping community members succeed in school, search for job opportunities, access emergency services, and much more. 


As we focus our efforts on addressing the numerous disparities that are exacerbated by the digital divide, we must urge federal officials to undertake bold and consistent efforts to eliminate the persistent divide once and for all. More specifically, Congress should fund the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (Broadband DATA) Act, which requires the FCC to collect and share more granular data about the availability of broadband service, create new broadband coverage maps that reflect this data, and establish processes to ensure data accuracy. The bipartisan act was signed into law in late March, but the FCC currently lacks the appropriations necessary to implement it. 


While lawmakers must continue to consider other, complementary ways to eliminate the digital divide, including the expansion of the federal Lifeline program, they should seize this historic opportunity and fund a modernization of our national broadband mapping system — a critical step that will help us identify the areas and communities that lack broadband access.


John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice ― AAJC

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