COVID-19 shines light on 'digital divide' across the US

From rural areas where broadband doesn't exist to poor areas where it's unaffordable, millions go without internet access just when they need it most.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

Millions of students across the country will be relying on home broadband connections to go to school for the next few weeks during the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.  


With the COVID-19 outbreak in full swing in the US, schools and businesses across the country are closing down, employees are being asked to rely on their broadband connections to work remotely and school-aged children are attending "school" remotely via the internet. 

But for large numbers of Americans, broadband connectivity simply isn't available or it's not affordable. The problem known as the "digital divide" is one that has dogged lawmakers and policymakers for years. 

Many, like FCC Commissioner Jessica Ronsenworcel, say the  coronavirus crisis is  exposing "hard truths about the scope of the digital divide." 

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 21 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. That includes nearly three in 10 people, or about 27%, who live in rural areas where broadband infrastructure simply isn't available. It also includes about 2% of people who live in cities where broadband is available but who aren't subscribed to service.  

What's more, those estimates are likely on the low side, especially in rural communities, since even the FCC admits that the reporting mechanism used to collect data about where broadband is available isn't granular enough. Analysis from Microsoft, suggests that the number of Americans without broadband could be more than 163 million.

But it's not just rural areas where people lack broadband. Even people in big cities like New York still lack broadband connectivity. For example, more than a third of Bronx residents don't have broadband at home, and nearly half of all New Yorkers living in poverty lack home broadband access, according to the office of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. What's more, 1.5 million New Yorkers have neither a home broadband connection nor a mobile connection on a phone or other device. 

This lack of connectivity is a huge problem, especially for the millions of students whose schools are moving online for the next few weeks or even months. It could also reduce the number of people who could benefit from telehealth solutions at a time when the nation's health care facilities will likely be strained and at capacity. 

The homework gap

The problem is most apparent for school-aged children across the country. At least 70% of schools in the US have already shut their doors. States such as Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have closed schools statewide. More schools are expected to shut down as the virus spreads.  

Educators have been scrambling to move instruction online. But administrators acknowledge that access for some students will be limited or nonexistent, creating huge inequities in access to education. 

The so-called homework gap affects roughly 12 million children across the country, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee. These are children for whom access to broadband services at home is unavailable, leaving them unable to access homework and other educational resources online. Studies have also shown that low-income students and students of color are most often those who lack broadband access at home.

As schools move toward online learning, it will further put low-income students and students in rural areas where access is nonexistent or limited at a grave disadvantage.

"We already know millions of students fall into this homework gap," Rosenworcel said in an interview last week. "And the FCC can be doing more to ensure those who are the greatest risk of being left behind can get online, too."

What's being done

The FCC has begun to take some actions to ensure people remain connected to the Internet. On Friday, Chairman Ajit Pai called on broadband service providers to take a pledge to "ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances." 

Nearly 200 companies have signed on to a promise not to cut off service for those who can't pay. They've also promised to waive data caps and overage fees. Wireless provider T-Mobile has increased network capacity. 

On Tuesday, the agency also announced it would loosen requirements for its Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income individuals for wireless and broadband service, to help get more people into the program.

In rural communities where broadband services simply aren't available, there isn't much the agency can do in the short term to close the gap, according to former FCC official Blair Levin. 

"You aren't going to be able to build a network where one doesn't exist in a week," said Levin, who led the FCC's effort in 2010 to develop the nation's first national broadband plan. "But when it comes to the issue of adoption in places where broadband already exists, there's a lot they can and should do."

Experts, like the two Democrats on the FCC -- Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks -- agree and they've been pushing the agency to take immediate action to help connect people in places where broadband service is available. 

They want to see the agency authorize emergency funding from the Universal Service Fund's E-rate program to provide hotspot lending programs through schools, libraries and community organizations. And they want the agency to encourage internet service providers to expand their low-cost broadband offers.

"We must continue to partner with industry to meet the needs of low-income Americans," Starks said last week.

Advocacy groups, such as the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, are also pushing the FCC to subsidize the cost of free or low-cost broadband service to students for home use in areas where schools have closed. 

"As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, and schools and libraries close across the country, the need to ensure everyone has affordable broadband at home becomes an urgent national priority," said John Windhausen Jr., executive director the SHLB Coalition. "The FCC can take several steps now to promote hotspot lending programs and allow schools, libraries and telehealth providers to increase their broadband capacity and share that capacity with the surrounding community."

Why is connectivity so elusive for so many?

For rural communities, the biggest reason why they may not have access to broadband is simply that building these networks is incredibly expensive. And in some places, it's nearly impossible. In mountainous areas, like West Virginia, nestled among the Appalachian, Allegheny and Cumberland mountain ranges, the terrain itself is problematic. In Alaska or Minnesota, the ground could be frozen for more than half the year, making it nearly impossible to install fiber or other infrastructure.

But the biggest issue in rural areas is the fact that there just aren't enough potential customers to pay for the cost of deploying the service. Broadband providers simply won't offer service if they can't get enough customers to pay for it. 

The issue of getting rural communities connected to broadband has gained a lot of attention in recent years. The FCC, Congress and President Donald Trump have talked a lot about the digital divide in rural areas. And Democrats running for president, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have promised even more money for solving the problem.

Wireless and satellite companies are offering solutions for rural areas. And companies like electric co-ops are also stepping up to build networks in hard-to-reach areas. But none of these networks will be built overnight.

The urban digital divide

There's also a digital divide between affluent and low-income households in cities and suburbs where service does exist. That divide is worse for cities with the highest levels of poverty. According to US Census data, households in cities with the highest poverty rates are up to 10 times more likely than those in communities with higher levels of income not to have broadband at home.  

For example, in Palo Alto, California, or Bethesda, Maryland, where poverty rates are very low, 94% of households are connected to the internet. But in Trenton, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, where poverty rates are way above the national average, 60% or more of households don't have broadband at home.  

There are several reasons for this divide between internet haves and have-nots, with affordability being only one piece of the puzzle, according to David Cohen, former Comcast executive vice president, who created the company's Internet Essentials program, which offers low-cost broadband service to poor people. 

The main barrier is what Cohen said is a "complex mix of digital literacy, skills, fear and a lack of perceived need or interest in having the internet at home." The second and third barriers include the lack of an internet capable computer and the cost of a monthly home internet subscription. 

Comcast announced last week that it has increased the speeds of its Internet Essentials as of March 16.  This involves offering 60 days of free service, after which people will be charged $9.95 per month, and increasing speeds on this plan from 15/2Mbps to 25/3Mbps.

"As our country continues to manage the COVID-19 emergency, we recognize that our company plays an important role in helping our customers stay connected – to their families, their workplaces, their schools, and the latest information about the virus – through the internet," Dana Strong, president of Comcast Cable consumer services, said in a blog post Thursday.

Watch this: Great online education and distance learning services for kids stuck at home