Trust Article

The Digital Divide

High-speed internet is a staple of everyday life, but many Americans don’t have access to it because no network reaches them—or they can’t afford to pay

May 29, 2024 By: Carol Kaufmann Read time:

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  • The Pantanal in South America
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The Digital Divide

Heather Peatman is a hardworking photographer and farmer, but she spends a good portion of her days thinking about something entirely different from editing pictures or feeding her animals: how she can get a speedy internet connection.

In her hometown of Fletcher, Vermont—a rural community of about 1,300 people, less than an hour from the Canadian border—she lives on a 42-acre farm with sheep, goats, ducks, and chickens that would be complete except for its very slow WiFi connection. This is a daily problem because her work—she specializes in show horses and dogs—requires her to shoot thousands of photos, edit them quickly, and send them back to clients so they can select and buy images—and so she can get paid.

But uploading her photographs for a client could take “anywhere from two to five nights,” she says—something a photographer with fast internet service, known as broadband, could do in minutes. She can’t even back up her photos on her phone at home because she doesn’t have the bandwidth. “If I lose them, I lose them,” she says.

Rather than wait for slow uploads, she drives 40 minutes to a hot spot in a bigger town and uploads her work there.

“It’s a hassle, but it’s a lot quicker than me trying to do it here,” she says from the farm. “I can upload several gigabytes’ worth of something on a public Wi-Fi network in a very short amount of time, compared to home.”

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The lack of fast internet connection plagues some 24 million Americans. Many, like Peatman, live in rural areas that remain unconnected, but others are in some of the country’s biggest cities. Scores of urban neighborhoods also are unconnected, and often, numerous residents there can’t afford internet service even when it is available. With internet service now nearly as essential as electricity in modern life, the digital divide is delineating a new group of haves and have-nots in America that has far-reaching implications.

Without broadband connection, citizens can’t easily access news and information; opportunities to go to school and take classes online; online job applications or virtual interactions with government agencies, such as those that administer education loans; the chance to work from home or have online doctor appointments; or even simple daily activities, such as online video conversations with family and friends.

Rural broadband connections are often not available because it’s too expensive for local governments or private internet service providers to build fiber optic cable installations and maintain them over vast areas with small populations. But having broadband available is only the first consideration—users also have to be able to pay for it.

In Vermont, this infrastructure model has historical precedence from the time when water and sewer service was first supplied to rural residents. Now, the state is trying to do the same thing with broadband, forming Communications Union Districts to oversee the work of physically digging into the ground or stringing cable from utility lines to place internet fiber in multiple counties and towns in rural areas.

“There’s finally some money being spent in Vermont for broadband,” says Matthew Hubbard, a Northeast broadband consultant who works on bringing rural broadband fiber to homes and supervises the construction. But connecting all customers is no easy task, especially when homes are spaced far apart, he says. And many, like Peatman, are still waiting.

Hubbard acknowledges the challenges. “Vermont is a rural state and some access is not easy,” he says. “There’s a lot of off-road pole lines that need to get reached with this fiber.” (Satellite service is often an option for rural residents, though it also is too expensive for many and can come with serious data restrictions and penalties for exceeding data limits.)

Heather Peatman goes where the Wi-Fi is, often a town 40 minutes from her home. As a professional photographer, she needs a stable internet connection with enough bandwidth to upload and transmit multiple photos at once—something she is unable to do from her farm in rural Vermont.
Heather Peatman for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Each state has its own challenges, says Kathryn de Wit, who leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative. That was an early lesson, she says, when Pew’s work began in 2018.

Another early lesson involved the limited availability of broadband. So, with growing bipartisan support among federal lawmakers to make large investments in high-speed internet access, Pew advocated for faster speed, increased technology standards, and stronger data collection requirements from internet providers so that investment money could be allocated more effectively.

“Our assessment of broadband availability used to be binary—is it technically available or not? Now, it needs to be more than that. What are the actual speeds customers receive? Is a connection reliable for homework? Is it reliable enough to justify spending your hard-earned paycheck?” de Wit says.

A crew installs fiber lines in Fletcher, Vermont, where Peatman lives. Towns throughout the state have formed municipal districts that partner with internet service providers to connect residents in rural areas to high-speed internet.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Pew’s work also has included bringing together state and federal broadband officials, digital equity advocates, industry experts, and academic researchers so they could discuss how to better deliver broadband service. The initiative has analyzed national data on how affordable broadband service is throughout the nation, and how education levels, social vulnerability, and regional economic strength affect users’ ability to pay. Since 2021, Pew has conducted an education and training program that provides no-cost assistance to 35 states and territories as they take advantage of the new federal infrastructure funding.

And Pew has encouraged continued federal funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides eligible households with a monthly subsidy to help pay for service.

“This really is an equity issue,” de Wit says. She cites Pew Research Center data that found that 43% of adults making less than $30,000 annually don’t have broadband, and 49% of households making less than $50,000 a year find it difficult to find money for internet service. “Affordable broadband democratizes opportunity, whether you’re in an urban or rural community,” she says.

William Honablew Jr., who serves as the digital equity coordinator for the city of Baltimore, sees this up close. His job is to meet with individuals and organizations to find out how to get all interested citizens online and help them reach what he calls their “digital potential”—knowing and accessing Internet resources in a way that enriches their lives.

William Honablew Jr., the digital equity coordinator for Baltimore, is tasked not only with connecting the citizens of his city to high-speed internet but also with empowering them to use it—steps necessary, he says, “to close the digital divide and keep it closed.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Broadband can help residents become better citizens, Honablew says, because it enables people to research topics that are important to them and to dig deeper on what they learn from media and other sources. Without a fast internet connection, “you don’t have the tools to think through or analyze critically the information you’re being provided,” he says. “You end up falling down some of these rabbit holes where you are engaged in conspiracies and those types of things and missing really genuine opportunities to advance your life.”

In addition to helping residents improve their digital literacy skills, he also focuses on older adults who often lack an understanding of how the internet works and how they can find information on social services.

For example, farmers market coupons are available at a senior center in Baltimore, he says, but those who need them have to be able to pick up the coupons, which is difficult if they don’t have a ride or transportation. “If you’re not able to do that, then you just stop,” says Honablew. “Broadband technology can assist with this.” Accessing a fast connection would yield options such as information about bus routes and schedules as well as ride sharing programs.

Another hurdle to digital equity, he says, is ensuring that users are comfortable with the broadband technology that, in many cases, state and local governments are providing. Honablew says that he’s witnessed situations where people start using technology, get excited about it, and then go to a workshop where someone says something off-putting or makes them feel inferior, and “they just don’t come back to learn more,” he says.

Accessing broadband is especially important to those who need it to navigate daily life.

For native Baltimore resident and community advocate Marguerite Woods, a fast internet connection is a must. Woods is blind and uses the internet for connection—to all things. Zoom, for one, helps her stay in touch with friends and family. She also uses the app Be My Eyes, which calls a sighted person who helps guide her through tasks such as choosing clothes, finding a path through a busy restaurant, locating a particular street, or reading mail. These apps, and others she uses, require high speed Wi-Fi.

“I am bald, I am Black, I am blind, and I am beautiful!” says Marguerite Woods, who advocates to help older adults and people with low vision stay connected. “As a blind person, I use a lot of apps and need Wi-Fi to take care of myself. Everything you need to do is online nowadays. You got to have it.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts

“We want to be independent,” Woods says of the blind community. “We just need to have accessible ways to connect with the larger community, ways to take care of our medical needs, our physical needs, social and spiritual, and to be able to travel and share our ideas. You’ve got to have connections to move forward and take care of yourself,” Woods says.

These are the kinds of gaps in the internet landscape that Honablew is trying to identify—and mend. “Broadband is important because it is now the new set of streets where information travels,” says Honablew. “Without having access, you don’t know what’s happening in the world.”

Carol Kaufmann is a Trust staff writer.

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