The digital divide is defined as “any uneven distribution in the access to, use of, or impact of information and communications technologies between any number of distinct groups, which can be defined based on social, geographical, or geopolitical criteria, or otherwise.”
You can find references to this phenomenon as early as the mid-90s from both government and academic sources. But if you grew up in rural or urban America, you didn’t need an Ivy-league scholar or the U.S. Department of Commerce to tell you what you instinctively already knew: You didn’t have the same access to technology and internet as your affluent peers.
In the mid-90s, you might not have even had a full grasp of what the internet actually was. But fast forward 20 plus, it has very quickly become essential to virtually everything we do. COVID-19 has now added education to that list. In many ways, it was already on the list. Homework and school projects have illuminated the digital divide in education for decades, but this is different. Schools are now delivering virtually one hundred percent of their instruction through the internet. This means that schools are also the ones who have been forced to finally address the long-standing technological gap.
And that is asinine.
This problem is way too large for an already taxed school system to handle. A school’s primary function is to deliver academic instruction … and many of them struggle to even do that well. Now, we are adding tasks like distributing wireless hot-spots and Chromebooks to that list. Schools are doing the best they can, but there is only so much they can do.
Many inner-city families simply can not afford the cost of internet access. Many rural areas are not wired for internet at-all and do not have enough people for an internet service provider to see a financial benefit in laying the infrastructure to provide the internet. It suffices to say that it would likely take a major act of Congress to put a sizable dent in this problem. Yet, we have PS 118 tackling the problem on their own. If the government had decided to be proactive and close the divide, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.
During the Great Depression when the government wanted to help provide electricity and other infrastructure upgrades to Appalachia, they created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public utility corporation. They did not leave it to the Chattanooga Public School district, but that is the equivalent of what we are doing today with the internet.
Some government functions have been accessible online since the early 2000s. From that perspective, one can legally argue that the internet has not been a “luxury” since that point. However, it has been recently ruled in federal court that “basic” education is a right. If education has moved online, one now has grounds to argue that the internet is a right, too.
This is not a call to break up communications companies or a plea to nationalize fiber-optic cables (though we did pay for it). It is simply pointing out the digital divide is a problem that we must solve, and school is not the appropriate level to solve it. If public schools are subsidizing computers and the internet to meet the basic requirements of their purpose, then the government needs to consider the possibility the internet is a public utility.