Getting closer to closing the digital divide – for good

No one knows how the Covid-19 pandemic – or the various iterations of it – will impact in-person school going forward, but one thing is certain, at-home learning for students and teachers is here to stay.

We are in the age of distance learning, and that means teaching through the digital divide will continue to impact communities across our state.

In Arizona, roughly 336,000 students and 4,800 teachers lack adequate internet access. Up to 220,600 students and 1,500 teachers are without the technology and devices at home to support distance learning. About 56% of the students who lack access are Black, Latino or Native American.

There is a persistent gap between students who have high-speed internet and adequate devices at home and those who do not, a gap that perpetuates educational and economic inequality at a time when accessing the internet at home is as important as having electricity and running water.

“Many of our students do not have access to Wi-Fi or technology. Lack of technology only adds to the stress for us and our families as we continue to try and support each other as we maintain a quality of education the best we can for our students,” said Tina, an elementary school teacher in El Mirage, who didn’t want to give her last name.

Access to robust home broadband service, appropriate and reliable learning devices and digital citizenship tools that keep families and teachers connected are essential to the future of education. The next step to closing the digital divide is the recent investment in broadband infrastructure that families and businesses can afford and ensuring that digital training and resources are available to those who need them.

“Given the global pandemic, and the switch to distance learning, it is imperative to provide essential tools and resources to all our students, closing the digital divide and increasing their chances for success,” said Lupita Hightower, superintendent of the Tolleson Elementary School District.

Fortunately, President Biden recently signed into law the historic and long overdue
$1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the largest investment in generations in America’s roads, bridges, ports, and water and energy systems. Included in this new, bipartisan law is $65 billion to help ensure that everyone in America is connected to high-speed internet, a monumental step toward one of Common Sense’s top priorities: closing the digital divide once and for all.

It is too soon to tell how much money will flow into Arizona from the infrastructure dollars, but more than $217 million has been requested for equipment, such as computers, tablets and hotspots, and services, such as internet connection.

This new law represents the single-largest investment ever made toward closing the digital divide and ensure that every home and business has access to broadband connectivity that is critical to thrive in today’s economy, in school, and in society.

Here is a breakdown for you to see exactly what it does for kids and families’ ability to go online and why it is so important. The broadband section of the new infrastructure law accomplishes four key goals to close the digital divide.

  • Deploys high-speed internet to communities that lack it;
  • Helps lower-income Americans afford internet service and devices;
  • Establishes “digital inclusion” programs to help internet users take full advantage of online services; and
  • Empowers consumers to protect themselves from exploitative and discriminatory business practices.

According to Drew Garner, Common Sense Media’s state broadband policy fellow, the infrastructure law create a first-of-its-kind digital inclusion program.

“One of the most exciting components of the new law is the Digital Equity Act, which provides nearly $3 billion to create and support digital inclusion programs,” he said.

Digital inclusion refers to providing internet users with the skills, knowledge and technology they need to take full advantage of everything the internet has to offer,” Garner added.

“Along with access and affordability, a lack of digital inclusion is one of the leading drivers of the digital divide. The infrastructure law recognizes this fact and, for the first time ever, provides funding for digital inclusion activities. This is an enormous show of support for a previously underappreciated problem,” he said.

In addition, the infrastructure law will deploy high-speed internet to communities that lack it.

The largest portion of the law is a $42 billion program dedicated to the creation and expansion of high-speed internet networks. This money is prioritized for rural areas and states that rank low in terms of internet access, ensuring that it will be spent connecting our least connected communities. It also prioritizes existing state projects and thereby supercharges the work that communities are already doing to build the networks of the future.

The law also includes a $1 billion program to fund the construction of middle-mile infrastructure, which will make it easier to build last-mile connections and provide redundancy to our networks so that they have fewer single points of failure. (In case you don’t already know, “middle mile” is the highway compared to the neighborhood streets of “last mile.” The more middle mile, the easier it is to connect dispersed communities.)

The infrastructure law makes internet access more affordable, too. The second-largest broadband portion of the law provides $14 billion to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) (formerly the Emergency Broadband Benefit [EBB]). The ACP helps lower-income consumers by providing up to $30/month for internet service and a one-time $100 to help purchase a device.

According to Garner, this $14 billion investment quadruples the size of the original EBB and demonstrates that Congress truly recognizes affordability as one of the leading causes of the digital divide. Moreover, the law also requires the FCC and companies that provide internet service (ISPs) to advertise the ACP to help ensure that as many eligible people as possible apply for the benefit, he said.

Ilana Lowery is the Arizona director at Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media is a national nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that works to improve the media and education landscape for kids, families and schools. They focus on helping kids, educators and parents thrive in a world of media and technology.

 

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