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SALT LAKE CITY — Technology plays a massive role in our lives, something that has been more evident than ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not everyone is able to rely on technology, or even have access to it.
Lack of access to high-speed internet or broadband is a human rights and social justice issue that disproportionately impacts low-income groups, people of color, older adults, rural residents and tribal communities, according to Cynthia Sanders, associate professor and online program director in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and the lead author of an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work.
While the issue is a pressing one, there are examples in Utah as to how it can be addressed. One example is in the Murray City School District.
"The digital divide is the has and the has not of technology, particularly we're often talking about broadband access or high-speed internet," Sanders said. "People who fall into the digital divide typically don't have access to broadband or may not be able to afford it."
Among the community-based, grassroots initiatives that can serve as excellent models is the way the Murray City School District has taken steps to mitigate the digital divide. In addition to providing all of their students with laptops, the district utilized federal funds to create its own long-term evolution network (LTE), providing students in the district fast, reliable broadband internet connection.
"Our intent in creating this was to address equity issues of students being able to access the internet while they're doing their school work at home," said Doug Perry, the district's public information officer. "We felt like this was a good initiative that would help bridge the gap for those households, especially those that have had issues with connectivity either because they can't afford a good connection or because they have multiple people in the household who are using the connections and having to compete for the space for those (connections)."
The district started experimenting with LTE after becoming one of the first districts to provide laptops for every student — something Perry said set them up to handle the soft closure of schools last year due to the pandemic.
"We didn't anticipate it, but with us being sort of ahead of the game, we were able to hit the ground running. That next day after closure we were able to have all of our students home with their laptops and home with a connection to the internet," Perry said.
"It's a game-changer in education not just for our district, but statewide and certainly across the country."
Perry said that the district has received great feedback from parents expressing how much the LTE network means to them. One parent told him that prior to the LTE network, she was having to monitor the bandwidth that she had for her cellphone, which turned out to be the internet source for the entire household.
"She had a limited plan and limited funds to be able to pay for this every month and had to figure out what the allocation was each day for bandwidth as they have to pay for that service," Perry said. "For us, it's gratifying to hear stories like that, that a parent like that no longer has to rely on her own personal cellphone plan to provide internet for their students."
Sanders said the digital divide can be looked at in three aspects: access, affordability and people's capacity to use technology and the internet effectively and safely. At least 20 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, an estimate that Sanders says is quite conservative.
"The way they measure it is by census tract, essentially they count people as having access or able to get broadband if even one person in a census tract is able to get it. Some estimates are as high as 162 million people falling into the digital divide," she said.
"It becomes not just an issue of infrastructure and policy to reduce the digital divide, but it also becomes an issue around social justice and human rights for those already marginalized groups."
Negative impacts associated with falling into the digital divide are wide-ranging and impactful. It can affect access to health care or medical records, staying in touch with family and friends and restrict access to education along with a myriad of other issues, Sanders said.
"The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion because there are so many things associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and opportunities, especially highlighted by the pandemic. It creates a clear social exclusion situation."
Sanders added, "For those of us who have easy access every day to broadband, you kind of take that for granted just in terms of the daily tasks of our lives like banking, applying for jobs and all those kinds of things that other people really could struggle with, it puts them at a disadvantage in terms of opportunity structures."
Sanders said it's important to think strategically when it comes to addressing this issue on a larger scale.
"Thinking about the partnerships and making sure there's some intention of funding going to these particularly disadvantaged communities in terms of bringing them out of the digital divide (is important)," she said.
Perry and Sanders both expressed hope that the Murray District's implementation of LTE could serve as a model for creating connectivity for those that fall into the digital divide.