In today’s world where everyone needs to be able to connect through the Internet for school, work, and socialization, it is critical that we prioritize finding equitable ways to connect our urban, suburban, and rural areas. Too many digital deserts still exist in the U.S. Tankovaska (2017) predicted 260 million devices would be connected to the Internet in the U.S. by 2020. That number was predicted prior to knowledge of the current pandemic situation. A Pew Research study (2019) indicated 96% of Americans owned at least one cell phone. According to the same study, nearly three-quarters of Americas also owned laptops, desktop computers, and tablets. Thankfully about 63% of rural families reported access to broadband Internet services in 2019 which was up from only 35% in 2007. Prior to 2020, 15% of all rural adult Americans reported they never utilized any online services (Pew, 2019).
Income disparity also significantly impacts the access to and use of digital technologies. In 2019, three-in-ten adults who earned less than $30,000 per year reported owning a smartphone. More than four-in-ten reported not having Broadband access available in their homes. Higher income Americans are much more likely to have multiple devices in the home. In 2020, this puts a significant challenge on those who trying to work, provide schooling options, and connect to other socialization outlets including church services, social activities, and connectivity activities with families and friends through a web conferencing technology. These disparities can create isolationism and challenges for lower-income families. Also, more families in the low-income population tend to rely more heavily on smartphones rather than having devices with larger screens which place learning online and other functionality at risk. Politicians and others, including the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission have discussed how more low-income families can be provided services. Today, many of those discussions are still stalled by partisan politics.
Fifty-three percent of Americans reported the Internet as an essential service in April 2020 (Pew, 2020) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another 34% of Americans rated Internet connectivity as important. There are, however, vast differences in beliefs regarding the role the government must play in assuring Americans have access to the Internet and to cell service across the country. The current thinking tends to run along party lines and is split evenly among voters. The larger concern among educators is the jeopardy many children will face if they are not able to continue toward achieving success in academics because of poor access to education during the pandemic. Children who are more fully connected to their schools, their teachers, and resources such as libraries and databases will have an extreme benefit in opportunities to excel in their educational advancement. Those children from rural areas or who are in low-income family situations without Broadband access will struggle. Students enrolled in higher education may also not be able to keep up with their counterparts in various geographical or higher salary demographics putting their college opportunities and future career aspirations at risk.
To promote equity, we must support digital inclusion. Simply put, digital inclusion is the ability of all individuals to access and use digital information regardless of geographical location or annual income. How do we promote equity through digital inclusion? We begin.
We begin by:
- Understanding the needs of the American people. What do the people need to be able to meet their education, work, and socialization essentials?
- Improve access for the American people. Provide governmental support of the infrastructure needed to build out Internet access.
- Educate all citizenry in opportunities for those in low-income situations to find the resources needed for access.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, nearly 19 million Americans lack Internet access today and nearly ¼ of that population lives in rural areas across the country. We must do better. We must begin to promote digital inclusion for all individuals to access and use digital information regardless of geographical location or annual income.
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Vickie S. Cook, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Online, Professional & Engaged Learning (OPEL) at the University of Illinois Springfield.