Bridging the Digital Divide
April 10, 2018
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple — these companies have become household names, and the world today heavily relies on their services. To many, the benefits of cheap and easy connection to information are obvious, ranging from increased educational and career opportunities to an increased rate of technological innovation. However, as the pace of this progress accelerates, two distinct issues have remained concerning: the use of these technologies and access to them. The topic of this article mostly focuses on how people still lack access to the Internet. This lack of access to and of use of the Internet is known as the “digital divide.”
But, how can this be? People everywhere seem constantly glued to their phones and computers. While it is true that internet use is at saturation for some groups — particularly young adults, individuals with higher levels of education, and affluent households — a digital divide still remains . Such unequal access to the Internet exacerbates further social stratification, limiting access to both economic and educational opportunities . This article will examine ways to close this gap.
There are clear benefits to closing the digital divide. Broadband internet access — internet access that is faster than traditional dial-up access — accounted for an estimated $32 billion per year in net consumer benefits in 2009 . This type of access can increase employment. For example, from the late 1990s to 2008, the share of unemployed individuals in their twenties who used the Internet for job searches increased from 24 to 74 percent. Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) indicate that the share of respondents using online job searches has increased over time due to expanded Internet use . Job searchers with internet access have a more efficient way to apply for work, allowing them to spend more time applying for each job and filling out more applications.
Broadband internet access has created numerous other benefits. Broadband has made medical care and medical information more accessible in rural areas, improving patient outcomes at lower costs . There are also numerous educational resources online which can help address socioeconomic inequality . Likewise, improving broadband connectivity can give more people access to educational and career-building resources. The Internet Innovation Alliance in 2016 found that households with internet access can also see annual savings of up to $11,218.98 for housing, transportation, insurance, entertainment and apparel purchases.  Therefore, improving broadband internet access is clearly an efficient way to both lessen inequality and boost the economy.
Understanding the Digital Divide
The National Divide
To analyze policy solutions, we must first understand the causes of the digital divide. Discrepancies in internet use among individuals are often due to factors including age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity . First, though a majority of senior citizens use the Internet, they still lag behind the general population by 23 percent . Second, though class-related gaps have decreased from 2000 to 2015, more affluent people (those with total family income above $75,000) and those with a college education are still 12 and 14 percent (respectively) more likely to use the Internet . Time reporters found that due to financial reasons, less than half of households with incomes at or below $20,000 are connected to the internet . Third, Asians and Caucasians have higher rates of Internet use than African Americans and Hispanics . Additionally, geography plays a significant role in the digital divide. For example, in the Appalachian region, there still exists a significant minority of people who have either slow or no Internet access and often “continue to make do with a dial-up” .
This lack of access directly limits educational opportunities and intergenerational socioeconomic mobility. 6.5 million students in 2017 still remain to be connected, as determined by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) minimum bandwidth connectivity goals of 1 Mbps per student  .
Philadelphia: A Case Study
Residents of the city of Philadelphia experience the full effects of the digital divide. With the highest poverty rate of the largest ten US cities over the last few decades, Philadelphia has many residents who live without access to broadband or information and communications technologies (ICTs) . As of 2015, approximately seven out of ten households with annual income below $30,000 in Philadelphia have broadband internet access.
Both Republicans and Democrats want to close the deficit of opportunities created by the digital divide. The Chairmen of the FCC under Presidents Obama and Trump vowed to make this a priority . Likewise, Senate Democrats in January 2017 proposed to increase broadband access as a part of their $1 trillion infrastructure plan  . In July 2017, President Trump also proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which largely focused on expanding broadband access by “eliminat[ing] regulatory barriers, increas[ing] investment in unserved areas, and redraft[ing] current FCC maps to more accurately reflect the percent of Americans that lack broadband access” . Similarly, in June 2011 the Broadband Affordability Act was introduced in the House of Representatives, which required the FCC to establish a broadband lifeline program enabling qualifying low-income customers to purchase broadband service at reduced charges . Rightly so, these solutions target broadband access, and separate solutions should be made regarding increasing Internet use once access has been granted.
While no one argues against the benefits of fast internet access, critics of broadband access— predominantly upper-level management in the tech private sector and some House Democrats — emphasize its faults. Though critics do not believe this should stop policymakers from enacting new legislation that makes internet access more affordable, they generally fear that the focus on current broadband will further entrench the problems that exist within a broadband system . Two such problems include that broadband access is not sufficiently secure and that it increases the capability of the Internet but not its speed . However, security issues occur mostly if users neglect to update their broadband settings and solely rely on the default settings that come with broadband hardware, and the slower speed of broadband access is largely dependent on whether the user’s IPS servers are slow or outdated . Thus, these aforementioned counterarguments are not substantial enough to merit a change in focus away from increasing broadband access. Furthermore, increased broadband access has accounted for an increase in U.S. GDP. Nearly half of the $39 billion increase to US GDP in 2006 was due to people switching from dialup to broadband access [. Likewise, since 2009, consumers have benefited by an estimated net value of $32 billion due to increased broadband access . Finally, not only is broadband access associated with local economic growth, but this access produces medical benefits like telemedicine, educational benefits like lower-cost online education, and political benefits due to increased access to information  .
Philadelphia is on the forefront of the fight against the digital divide. The fight did not start out perfectly. The Wireless Philadelphia initiative tried to establish a publicly-owned and operated citywide wireless network. The project failed in 2004 because the Verizon lobbied against it as a possible source of competition and the project lacked funding from public sources . However, the city has not stopped trying to improve access. Comcast is a central player in Philadelphia’s fight against the digital divide, although it is worth noting the tax abatements they have received far overshadow the money they are spending on internet access efforts . The company launched Internet Essentials in Philadelphia and other cities in August of 2011, which offered low-cost, high-speed Internet service for low-income families with at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program.  In addition to Internet access, the program offered the option to purchase a heavily subsidized computer and digital literacy training. As of 2016, Comcast has connected nearly 132,000 individuals in Philadelphia.  Today, the company plans to further expand the program by increasing Internet speeds and offering 40 hours of free out-of-home WiFi.  Comcast’s efforts are helping to keep the fight against the digital divide alive in Philadelphia, but Philadelphia must expand beyond Comcast’s efforts in order to create a longer-lasting impact.
Comcast is also piloting a program for low-income community college students who receive Federal Pell Grants, the same population that fills middle-skill jobs.  Comcast supports other organizations as well, awarding $100,000 in grants to ten local nonprofits and their digital literacy efforts in 2016.  In addition to Comcast, KEYSPOT is a network of public, private, and nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia that use community-based public access centers to offer technology, Internet access, and digital literacy training.  KEYSPOT is managed by Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education and have continuously operated 52 centers since 2010.  Comcast claims that over the past five years, the share of households with broadband access in Philadelphia has increased from 70.7% to 76.4%.  The simple solutions being implemented in Philadelphia show a clear correlation with increased connection, the necessary prerequisite for improving education or finding jobs.
Philadelphia is looking to implement additional solutions in the near future. Intersection, the company responsible for LinkNYC, will be implementing LinkPHL in the Philly.  100 kiosks will be installed in early 2018 with a 12 month completion time. Each kiosk is a WiFi hub, charging station, digital advertising display, and information booth. LinkPHL is completely free for the user and the city due to advertisement revenue. In fact, the city will see a minimum $450,000 annual revenue through the life of the contract with Intersection . The City of Philadelphia also just established the Digital Literacy Alliance, a collective of 19 organizations with $850,000 in seed funding dedicated to supporting and guiding digital literacy and inclusion programs in Philly. 
However, Philadelphia’s digital divide efforts are not without problems. Local broadband advocates claim Comcast is not providing information to prove the company is keeping the Internet Essential promises to broaden eligibility made in 2015.  Comcast also allegedly tries to block competitors from entering markets like Philadelphia, but hopefully initiatives like the Digital Literacy Alliance, which includes Verizon, can prevent this. With these telecom giants now on board with Philadelphia’s digital divide initiatives, the goal of closing the digital divide has become much more attainable.
While the digital divide continues to persist, it has, by all indications, decreased in recent years. Measuring the number of people without access to computers and the Internet does not fully describe the digital divide. Many researchers are now shifting from focusing merely on access to the Internet and ICTs to “digital literacy” . Locally, this can be seen with Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance. In addition to increasing broadband access, there is now increasing action that recognizes these additional aspects of the digital divide.
The digital divide is an important issue that has yet to be sufficiently addressed on a national level. Cities like Philadelphia are exploring a multitude of solutions that have seen success over the last few years and are pushing to expand their efforts into the future. If these efforts are coupled with national policy change in favor of better increasing broadband access, the number of people with access and digital literacy will rapidly grow, with a potential to bridge this inequality holding back millions of Americans. Addressing the digital divide can lead to economic growth and wage increases, alongside easier access to medical care, lower-cost online education, and job opportunities. The Internet contains a wealth of information, and the digital world is becoming increasingly important in today’s society. The digital divide is a far-reaching issue that needs to be solved, and that answer is within reach.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.