Internet “Have Nots” (Including Many Children) are Suffering Digital Divide Consequences in the COVID-19 Era

October 27, 2020 | Articles

Authors: Dr. Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics
Dr. John Lai, Assistant Professor, University of Florida Food and Resource Economics Department 

Our interest in the digital divide and the many inequities that come from not having ready access to modern information and communication technology was recently fueled by work on Indiana residents’ demand for internet services (see Eliciting Consumer Willingness to Pay for Home Internet Service: Closing the Digital Divide in the State of Indiana by John Lai, Nicole Widmar and Courtney Bir in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 2020).

Concern about the inequities, especially for children challenged by dire situations surrounding schooling and access to education due to internet and communication technology limitations, has increased significantly during current COVID-19 pandemic times as nearly all aspects of life have moved (sometimes exclusively) online. We recently penned an article entitled Revisiting the Digital Divide in the COVID-19 Era for Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. In the process of developing our new article about the internet and COVID-19 for U.S. residents that is primarily focused on how internet connectivity challenges are exacerbated in rural areas with lesser service availability, we became increasingly concerned about the digital divide for all people facing limited access to technology and the internet today, especially children. We were so compelled by the consequences on residents without sufficient internet access that we are revisiting those concerns and elaborating even further here …

What if the World Went Online, but You Stayed Logged Off? 

a student attempting to learn online sits in frustration in front of a no internet message on his screenAs the COVID-19[1] pandemic spreads throughout communities across the U.S., the virus has shed light on the fragility of many aspects of people’s daily lives.[2] When the first announcements of closures of major institutions in the U.S. surfaced in March 2020, COVID-19’s direct health impacts, including case counts, hospital beds, ventilator availability and intensive care facility use rates were being reported in media headlines [11,12]. Universities moved with surprising speed to take courses online for the Spring 2020 semester after mid-March, with many taking advantage of Spring Break in the academic calendar to facilitate the transition [13–17]. Schools, from preschool age to K-12, followed in various regions of the U.S., moving students of all ages into ‘virtual classrooms’ and making online schooling the norm for the first time, especially for the youngest students. Parents were increasingly faced with challenges regarding balancing childcare and schooling needs with employment [18], which led to continued concerns about economic recovery as parents remained sole caretakers of children in many areas of the nation [19] while simultaneously facilitating home or online schooling. 

COVID-19 Transitioned Lives Online 

Due to social distancing guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and mandates by local and/or state regulatory bodies, the public has increasingly relied on access to the internet for not only work, school and social support, but also the most up-to-date information while public health experts were still learning about the pandemic. U.S. residents are adjusting to changes in their everyday lives, including residents of urban areas who witnessed pandemic effects early on [20] and rural residents living in many regions who experienced their highest COVID-19 case counts weeks after New York or New Jersey case counts fell from national news media concern [21]. Most businesses, including essential utilities and services, have shifted to operating either partially or completely online. Restaurants have partnered with food delivery service mobile apps or web-based ordering. Contactless service is becoming the norm, even in essential home services such as heating/cooling system repairs (Santos et al., 2020; Schoen, 2020). Many realtors have turned to offering virtual tours [24]. Court hearings are teleconferenced [25]. Teaching at all levels has been shifted to online using either synchronous or asynchronous approaches [26,27].

For many people, the ‘new everyday life’ in the COVID-19 era is on the internet: work, school, social connections and communication, health appointments (including COVID-19 screenings in many areas) and shopping (including for food and essentials). As the length of time spent in this new normal increases, the probability that processes moved online stay there permanently may also increase due, in part, to the level of investment in human resources and technology required to enable those transactions and the adjustment costs incurred by users already. Determining which employees return physically to work has become a point of public debate with some employers requiring COVID-19 testing [28]. Many companies are seeking staggered shifts or staggered returns to the workplace [29]. In contrast, some employees may never physically return to work, having proven collectively as a society that telecommuting and teleworking can indeed be productive in addition to keeping individuals safer at home than comingling with others [30]. 

COVID-19 has made the digital divide wider and more obvious, although the disparity was evident and growing long before the current pandemic situation. Rural areas, in particular, face challenges well documented to be related to the lack of ready internet access at home. 

Rural Area Challenges and the Digital Divide 

a list of rural area challenges highlighting the digital divide

School and Work Are Online, Are You? 

Reporting on the coronavirus effects on students approaching their first weeks back at school has placed access to the internet and digital devices among issues such as health, financial security, food security and housing [45]. The issue of online access has fallen upon the local school districts to conduct assessments to communicate to state-level governance. Funding, support and coordination have taken place between federal, state and local school districts to take advantage of a suite of options which have been proposed to bring equitable education access: purchasing laptops, tablets, providing hotspots and working with fixed line service providers to provide students with internet connectivity (Ali, 2020; Slavin and Storey, 2020; Young and Donovan, 2020). However, in some cases, negotiations for consistent and reliable internet service has continued even into the days leading up to school openings. Difficulties with regional monopolies, lack of infrastructure investment and prioritization of profits over service were cited as barriers to the internet connections [49]. 

Some major internet providers have made changes to their policies surrounding data speed and usage limits, which are summarized below. Yet, such adjustments do little to aid those without home access or those where speeds available are simply insufficient. 

Selected internet service providers’ lowest advertised speeds for residential and business internet. 

 Internet Service Providers High Speed Data Added Suspended Data Usage Limits Suspended Account Closures Waived Late Fees Waived Overage Charges Wi-Fi Hotspots Open to Public Speed Increased Free Technical Support with Service
AT&T 10-15GB Yes Yes Yes Yes
CenturyLink Yes Yes
Consolidated Communications N/A
Comcast Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cox Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Charter Yes Yes Yes
Earthlink N/A Yes Yes
Frontier Communications N/A Yes
Google 30GB
Mediacom Communications Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sparklight Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sprint/T-Mobile Yes Yes Yes
Starry N/A Yes N/A
TDS Yes Yes
T-Mobile Yes
Verizon 15GB N/A Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windstream (Kinetic) N/A

Note: The changes in service offers during COVID-19 are listed for various internet service providers retrieved from each provider’s website. For AT&T, see: https://about.att.com/pages/COVID-19.html. For CenturyLink, see: https://news.centurylink.com/fccpledge. For Consolidated Communications, see: https://www.consolidated.com/support/alerts/coronavirus-updates/company-preparedness-response/keep-americans-connected-pledge. For Comcast, see: https://corporate.comcast.com/covid-19. For Cox, see: https://newsroom.cox.com/cox_pledges_to_keep_america_connected. For Charter, see: https://corporate.charter.com/newsroom/covid-19-update-charter-continues-to-keep-customers-connected. For Earthlink, see: https://www.earthlink.net/keep-americans-connected/. For Frontier Communications, see: https://frontier.com/. For Google, see: https://fiber.google.com/blog/2020/committing-to-keep-you-connected-virtually-of-course/. For MediaCom, see: https://mediacomcable.com/about/news/corona-company-initiatives/. For Sparklight, see: http://one2one.sparklight.com/tag/coronavirus/. For Sprint/T-Mobile, see: https://www.t-mobile.com/news/community/t-mobile-update-on-covid-19-response. For Starry, see: https://starry.com/blog/news/extending-our-pledge-during-covid-19. For TDS, see: https://tdstelecom.com/about/news/categories/tds/TDS_Customer_options_after_FCCpledge_expiration.html. For Verizon, see: https://www.verizon.com/about/news/update-verizon-serve-customers-covid-19. For Windstream, see: https://news.windstream.com/Windstream-COVID-19-Response/. 

The pandemic has driven over a third of the U.S. labor force to switch to remote work between February and May 2020 and has affected states with more workers in positions (i.e., management and professional) [50]. These types of workers who can transition to alternative work locations heavily rely on technology [51]. This has also led to an inquiry on the linkages of productivity with occupations and individual characteristics because of its effect on all occupational groups, and more negative impacts on low-wage and low-skill employees [50]. These types of workers (e.g., hourly wage workers) are less likely to be able to work in alternative locations (e.g., home) and are concentrated in industries such as food and beverage, retail, and travel and leisure services [52–54]. Successfully working from home has several requirements: home computer, access to high-speed internet and networking infrastructure, which, for the U.S., are not universally available [53]. However, residential customers in some areas can meet all of these requirements and still experience significant broadband access challenges because of the difference in quality of infrastructure between residential communities and environments built for offices, schools, businesses and hospitals [55]. 

In Summary 

Sometimes children say it the best; they are honest little beings and have no hidden agenda other than sharing what they really think. When the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, my kindergartener troubleshoots – the lights are on, so why isn’t my IPad working? Internet is congruous with basic modern life necessities like electricity if you are a kindergartener. And I argue if you are a human being in 2020, kindergartener or not, the internet has become so important that it is a life necessity. 

We have explored the internet as a public good, analogous to rural electrification, in our conclusion to our article Revisiting the Digital Divide in the COVID-19 Era, which we hope you will review for further details. 

ConsumerCorner.2020.Article.05 

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Endnotes 

[1] The COVID-19 pandemic is an infectious disease that causes respiratory illness which is spread from person-to-person with increased risk over prolonged close interactions [1]. 

[2] Increasingly, there is concern about citizen’s mental health [2,3] and physical health [4,5]; surging unemployment [6], telecommuting work-life balances [7]; teleschooling for students from pre-school through college and professional levels [8,9]; and the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus outbreak [10].