Fixing the Digital Divide Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Semi-opened Laptop Computer Turned-on on Table.

The following essay was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in collaboration with Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation as part of Rebuilding Philly, a series of commentary articles written by Drexel faculty and professional staff related to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and economic equity gaps in Philadelphia. It was written by Youngmoo Kim, PhD, director of the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies Center and professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering.

The sudden transition to remote learning due to the pandemic brought long-overdue attention to the digital divide, particularly the number of families without home broadband internet. In Philadelphia, the phrase “Parking Lot WiFi” justly attained infamy. In 2020, the city and School District, with industry and philanthropic partners, launched PHLConnectED to assist up to 35,000 students without home broadband internet service. The city’s just-published “Connecting Philadelphia” survey shows an increase in home broadband from 70% (in 2019) to 84% (2021).

While I applaud these initiatives and related efforts to provide computers and connectivity to all, it’s not nearly enough — and it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Put another way, back in 2001, if you’d told me (or most anyone in tech), “in 20 years, 92% of American adults under 50 will have a pocket supercomputer with always-on wireless internet access,” we’d have celebrated the closing of the digital divide. But this betrays an antiquated view, focusing on devices and technology rather than education and training.

Closing the divide was supposed to create more equitable economic opportunity, but we are no closer to digital equity than we were in 2001. The huge gains in tech over the past 20 years are further fueling economic inequality, catering to those with means while leaving behind those who lack socioeconomic privilege, particularly people of color. Devices and connectivity are not enough to achieve digital inclusion.

The nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance recently released its 2021-2022 “Policy Priorities,” emphasizing both universal broadband access and digital literacy and skills training. The former has received significant attention through temporary internet assistance programs, like the Emergency Broadband Benefit and PHLConnectED. These are having an impact, but making the broadband benefit program permanent would ensure a true home broadband safety net.

The call for investment in community-based digital inclusion and skills programs deserves greater attention. The inclusion alliance advocates for supporting trusted, locally grown initiatives working directly with neighborhoods and families to address actual needs (not the assumed needs imagined by industry or education technology providers). A local example is the Digital Navigator program, started by the city and the Digital Literacy Alliance, a network of community sites — including a program that I lead at Drexel University — which provides call-in helplines to assist those who need devices and training. The Technology Learning Collaborative is another Philadelphia-based organization spearheading local digital inclusion efforts into collective action.

Here’s why I hope all Philadelphians become familiar with these efforts: The Digital Equity Act, part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill awaiting passage, proposes $2.5 billion for new digital inclusion and skills training initiatives over five years.

It will be crucial for state and local governments to distribute these funds to trusted community-based initiatives experienced in digital inclusion (not just traditional tech training programs, which are historically exclusive). Short-term needs must be addressed for digitally marginalized groups (the poor and elderly), and some support should focus on high-quality out-of-school digital enrichment programs for young students, absent in many parts of our city.

It is also absolutely critical to invest in longer-term digital skills development through public education to make substantive gains toward digital equity. This requires partnership, and the city, the School District, the Digital Literacy Alliance, the Technology Learning Collaborative, and others are already working together. By coordinating these efforts with increased industry support, Philadelphia could become a model city for digital equity.

So, we must also call upon the tech industry to invest much more in such initiatives, here and everywhere. Tech companies have nodded collectively in the direction of diversity and inclusion, but efforts to date are but a drop in their ocean of profits. It’s been said that “data is the oil of the 21st century.” The tech industry, built upon our data, has reaped enormous profits that are being enjoyed by only a select few, much like the oil barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether we realize it or not, we are living in a similarly gilded age, but this time technology is the driver. The solution is not to give everyone a bit of oil, but to invest in training and education to provide greater opportunity to ensure a more equitable future — digitally and otherwise.