The first year of the pandemic has seen plenty of existing challenges in society exacerbated even more.
Less resilient jobs disappeared locally and on a national level. Many remaining workers were directed to work from home, and students in families with minimal internet access or computer use were suddenly forced to study remotely — even if they had no digital tools to do so.
Here’s what the first, and hopefully last, year of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant for regional digital access issues.
To boost digital access during the pandemic, a partnership between the City of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia called PHLConnectED has provided more than 15,000 internet connections to the families since it launched in August, the City reported Friday. That’s up from 11,000 as of November. More than 2,500 of those connections went to students who obtained MiFi devices, which create wireless broadband hotspots, with the school district’s help last spring and summer.
Per the City, for a more sustainable solution to pandemic-exacerbated access issues, more than 7,900 families that initially signed up for two free months of Comcast’s l0w-cost Internet Essentials service were able to transition into the PHLConnectED program, which covered their monthly internet bills.
Last April, Internet Society senior policy manager Katie Jordan spoke to Technical.ly about the bandwidth needs that would come with more people using the internet at once, thanks to increase remote work. While she was optimistic about the internet’s capacity to host more users, she noted that not every worker had the equipment and resources to work from home.
Remote work was one of the topics of discussion during Technical.ly’s May Introduced|Virtual event. Former Technical.ly DC Market Editor Michelai Graham discussed how many companies were facing challenges in maintaining morale with all of their workers operating from home. “Of course we all have Slack, we all have Zoom, but there’s still nothing like that in-person interaction,” she said.
Philly Tech Justice, an initiative of the Movement Alliance Project (MAP), began agitating Comcast to improve the speed of its Internet Essentials offerings last year, including via an August protest. Approximately 98,500 people in Philadelphia, or 16% of its residents, don’t have access to internet. The pandemic only increased concerns that activists like MAP’s Devren Washington have about who is able to do things like work from home or learn remotely — or, more recently, access the coronavirus vaccine.
Digital access during the pandemic is not just a Philly issue. In Baltimore, Technical.ly has reported, stakeholders such as city officials and community activists have have all had to work extensively to find solutions for students to work from home.
This February, Comcast doubled the download speed of its Internet Essentials offering to 50 mbps. Arriving a year after the start of the pandemic, it may have taken time and a strong push from activists, but the low-income families that the program serves will be able to take advantage of faster internet access.
How hard would it be to provide free internet on an ongoing basis? An October guest post from Bradley University’s D. Antonio Cantù offered a timeline explaining how the digital divide has only worsened over the past two decades.
“If the free internet service lasts only as long as the COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote, “the digital divide may open back up before it even really begins to close.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.