There’s no question that a digital divide exists in the United States and around the world between those with broadband access and those without. It is often viewed as a rural condition, but we are increasingly realizing the divide exists within urban areas as well. One sector that is profoundly affected by this gap is education, highlighted recently by forced transitions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In cities, there is a major gap between students whose households have reliable high-speed internet service and those who do not. This inequality forces school districts with a larger portion of low-income earning families into very limited options for remote learning. Those school districts may have to take risks other districts are not as pressured to take because of better broadband resources.
Understanding the Divide Recently, Foresite Group was approached by two non-profit organizations in a Waukegan, Illinois, Beacon Place and Heart of the City Sports, to examine the digital divide issue within their community and provide insight on how to take action. Even though the city is an urban setting near Chicago, lack of internet connectivity is a struggle many of the students in its school district are facing. This is due to many socioeconomic and cultural boundaries within the community. Foresite Group found that the census tracts with the lowest median household incomes also had up to 28% of households without internet connection. Households with no internet connection also correlated closely with minority populations and lower educational attainment. In short, areas that exhibited the highest need for educational and employment resources were the ones most often lacking reliable internet.
Short-Term Solutions To address this problem in the short term, Foresite Group suggested three solutions. First, support the school district’s plan for cellular hotspots. These are currently being provided in school parking lots for drive up use. However, this is not a sustainable solution because these technologies are not designed to sustain long-term video streaming and may be restricted by maximum usage thresholds that limit data and speeds after a data limit is exceeded. Also, working from inside a car can be cramped and uncomfortable, and Chicago may be too cold for parking lot internet services in the winter months.
To mitigate this problem, the school district or City could invest in connectivity in public spaces. Before late fall, these spaces could include parks and public beaches in the community. This would give school-aged children more comfortable, pleasant environments to work where there is ample space to social distance and the City has the benefit of public spaces being utilized. Other partners, such as non-profits in the area, are already opening their doors for students to do schoolwork during the day. This solution requires the school district, non-profits, and the City to work in unison.
Lastly, private organizations can donate resources schools need to make their strategies successful. Non-profits should work together to organize individuals and private organizations to participate in schools’ programs such as tutoring, fund-raising, and other hands-on work. These organizations can also work to supply immediate needs such as additional laptops and terminals for students.
Medium- and Long-Term Solutions In the long term, our clients and all cities need to review their internet connectivity infrastructure plans. The City of Waukegan had many planning documents from a comprehensive master plan to a regional economic development plan, but each of these plans left out a vital element to today’s economic and social structure: ensuring their residents have access to reliable, high-quality internet services. Instead of being left to the mercy of private internet service providers, cities can shape their own destiny by planning for their future broadband infrastructure. This begins with forming a broadband advisory team and forming a Broadband Master Plan. These steps can keep a city on track to meet their specific broadband needs and goals.
Broadband can often be intimidating because cities feel pressure to build out huge fiber networks immediately. Planning and identifying specific goals can help relieve some of the pressure. Focusing on immediate needs, developing public-private partnerships, and building a small-steps phased approached can help a community ease into this new type of infrastructure planning. The important thing is that communities plan for the future and set themselves up to be competitive in a world that is only becoming more reliant on internet services.
About Garrett Wates
Garrett has a passion for exploring both the technical and social needs of communities and solutioning around those needs to increase quality of life for residents and create more economically competitive places. His experience includes working with the City of Auburn’s GIS department and academic research roles at Auburn University. Alongside his role as community broadband analyst, he also oversees and maintains the GIS operations for ongoing design projects.