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Getting vaccinated is hard. It’s even harder without the internet.

The digital divide is hurting many Americans just when they need connectivity the most. But change may require focusing on affordability, not access.

February 3, 2021
digital divide affects elderly
Ms Tech | Unsplash

Before his 190-square-foot apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was connected to the internet, Marvis Phillips depended on a friend with a laptop for his prolific letter-writing campaigns. 

Phillips, a community organizer, wrote each note by hand and mailed them, then his friend typed and sent the missives, via email and online comment forms, to the city supervisors, planning commissions, statehouse officials, and Congressional representatives to whom he had been making his opinions known for over 40 years. 

Phillips has lived for decades in the Alexander Residence, a 179-unit affordable housing building where internet access is, theoretically, available: he is just a few blocks from the headquarters of companies like Twitter, Uber, and Zendesk. But living on a fixed income that comes primarily from social security benefits, Phillips could not afford the costs of a broadband subscription or the device that he’d need to get connected. 

“I had wanted to be online for years,” says the 65-year-old, but “I have to pay for my rent, buy my food—there were other things that were important.”

For as long as the internet has existed, there has been a divide between those who have it and those who do not, with increasingly high stakes for people stuck on the wrong side of America’s “persistent digital divide.” That’s one reason why, from the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to make universal broadband a priority.

But Biden’s promise has taken on extra urgency as a result of the pandemic. Covid-19 has widened many inequities, including the “homework gap” that threatened to leave lower-income students behind as schools moved online, as well as access to health care, unemployment benefits, court appearances, and—increasingly— the covid-19 vaccine, all of which require (or are facilitated by) internet connections.

Whether Biden can succeed in bridging the gap, however, depends on how he defines the problem. Is it one that can be fixed with more infrastructure, or one that requires social programs to address affordability and adoption gaps?

The hidden divide 

For years, the digital divide was seen as a largely rural problem, and billions of dollars have gone into expanding broadband infrastructure and funding telecom companies to reach into more remote, underserved areas. This persistent focus on the rural-urban divide has left folks like Marvis Phillips—who struggle with the affordability of internet services, not with proximity—out of the loop. 

And at the start of the pandemic, the continued impact of the digital divide became starkly drawn as schools switched to online teaching. Images of students forced to sit in restaurant parking lots to access free WiFi so they could take their classes on the internet drove home just how wide the digital divide in America remains. 

The Federal Communications Commission did take some action, asking internet service providers to sign a voluntary pledge to keep services going and forgive late fees. The FCC has not released data on how many people benefited from the pledge, but it did receive hundreds of complaints that the program was not working as intended. 

Five hundred pages of these complaints were released last year after a public records request from The Daily Dot. Among them was a mother who explained that the pandemic was forcing her to make an impossible choice.

"This isn't just about the number of people who have lost internet because they can't afford it. We believe a far greater number of people can't afford internet, but are sacrificing other necessities."

“I have four boys who are all in school and need the internet to do their online school work,” she wrote. Her line was disconnected despite a promise that it would not be turned off due to non-payment. “I paid my bill of $221.00 to turn my services on. It was the last money I had and now do not have money to buy groceries for the week.”

Other messages spoke of the need to forgo food, diapers, and other necessities in order to keep families connected for schoolwork and jobs. 

“This isn't just about the number of people who have lost internet because they can't afford it,” says Dana Floberg, policy manager of consumer advocacy organization Free Press. “We believe a far greater number of people ... can't afford internet but are sacrificing other necessities.”

According to Ann Veigle, an FCC spokesperson, such complaints are passed onto providers, who are “required to respond to the FCC and consumer in writing within 30 days.” She did not respond to questions on whether the service providers have shared reports or outcomes with the FCC, how many low-income internet and phone subscribers have benefited from the pledge, or any other outcomes of the program. 

The lack of data is part of a broader problem with the FCC’s approach, says Floberg, since former chairman Ajit Pai recategorized the internet from a utility, like electricity, back to a less-regulated “information service.” She sees restoring the FCC’s regulatory authority as “the linchpin” toward “equitable and universal access and affordability” of broadband internet, by increasing competition and, in turn, resulting in better service and lower prices.

Measuring the wrong things

It took Marvis Phillips three months of free internet, two months of one-on-one training, and two donated iPads—upgraded during the pandemic to accommodate Zoom and telehealth calls—to get online. And since the city ordered people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus, Phillips says the internet has become his “lifeline.”

“Loneliness and social isolation is...a social justice and poverty issue,” says Cathy Michalec, the executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, the nonprofit that helped Phillips connect as part of its mission to serve low-income seniors. As with other solutions to isolation—bus fare to visit a park, tickets to a museum—internet connections also require financial resources that many older adults don’t have.

There are many people like Phillips in San Francisco: according to data from the mayor’s office, 100,000 residents, including many adults over 60, still do not have home internet. Meanwhile, data from Pew Research Trust shows that, in 2019, only 59% of seniors across the country have home broadband—a figure that decreases among those with lower incomes and educational attainments, and whose primary language is not English. The US Census Bureau, meanwhile, shows that 1 in 3 households headed by someone 65 or older does not have a computer

Prices for broadband plans in the United States average $68 per month, according to a 2020 report by the New America Foundation, compared to the $10-$15 that some studies have suggested would be actually affordable for low-income households and the $9.95/month that Phillips currently pays through a subsidized program. 

It’s all evidence of how broadband policy has been chasing the wrong metric, says Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former counselor to Democratic FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Rather than focusing on whether people are served by broadband infrastructure, she argues that the FCC should be measuring internet access with a simpler question: “Do people have it in their homes?” 

When this is taken into account, the rural-urban digital divide begins to look a little different.  According to research by John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, there were 20.4 million American households that did not have broadband in 2019, but the vast majority were urban: 5.1 million were in rural locations, and 15.3 million were in metro areas. 

Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly has helped many older San Franciscans get online with basic internet access and device training.

This is not to say that the internet needs of rural residents are not important, Sohn adds, but underscores the argument that focusing on infrastructure alone only solves part of the problem. Regardless of why people don’t have access, she says, “we're not where we need to be.”

Broadband policies that address the adoption and affordability gaps are on the horizon. In December, Congress passed a long-awaited second coronavirus stimulus package that included $7 billion toward an emergency expansion of broadband, with almost half—roughly $3.2 billion—set aside for $50/month internet subsidies for low income households.

This is far more than the $9.25 monthly subsidy provided by the FCC’s long-running Lifeline program

Sohn says this increase is significant—and may stick around. “Once people have it [the $50 subsidy], it becomes more difficult to take it away,” she says, “so putting that stake in the ground is critically important.”

Meanwhile, changes in the senate and the White House mean there is a chance for a bill which stalled last year to get a second look. The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, championed by James Clyburn, a close ally of President Biden, proposed funding for broadband buildout to underserved areas, $50 in internet subsidies, and funding to community organizations and schools to encourage adoption. It was held up in the senate, but is likely to get revisited under Democratic leadership.

“Where does the information trickle down to?”

This slow progress is happening just as the need for home internet has become more acute than ever, with signups for covid-19 vaccinations hosted on websites that are difficult to navigate or downright dysfunctional, and newly available appointment slots announced on social media. Even for those that have broadband, the process has been so confusing that, in many families, more digitally savvy grandchildren are registering on behalf of their grandparents. 

“I have dealt with 10 phone calls in the last two weeks from older adults,” says Michalec. She’s receiving questions like: When are we going to get the vaccine? I've heard that you have to sign up on a website, but I don't have a cell phone or computer. What am I supposed to do?

As she scrambles to find answers, Michalec is frustrated by the lack of clear communication on what existing solutions are already out there. Neither she nor any of her seniors were aware of the FCC’s subsidy programs, she says, even though they would meet the eligibility criteria. 

Nor was she aware of the benefits that the most recent coronavirus stimulus package would provide, despite following the news closely. “Where does that information trickle down to?” she wonders. “How do we get an application into people’s hands?”

Michalec says that she’s been looking for support from some of the large technology companies now in the neighborhood, as well as the greater Bay area. She says that she has personally written to Tim Cook at Apple, as well as Google representatives, but so far, she has had no luck. 

“I’m sure they get letters like that all the time,” she says, but adds, “We don’t need the newest devices. I know…[they] have devices lying around.”

Marvis Phillips, meanwhile, continues his community advocacy from his iPad. These days, his emails have homed in on the contradictions of covid-19 health orders. 

“I just sent an email about having to go out to get your test, get your vaccine,” he says. “How can you ‘stay at home’ if you have to go out to do everything?”

He tries to keep on top of the constant shifts in news and rules on vaccine availability, and then passes that information on to others in the community who are not as digitally connected. 

He wishes that health workers could simply go door-to-door in administering vaccines, so that medically vulnerable populations—like almost everyone in his building—could truly stay protected at home. 

He continues to email everyone he can think of to enact such a policy, but he is relieved, at least, that he can use the internet to access his health provider’s web portal. Eventually, he says, it will give him the alert to schedule an appointment. “As of Thursday ... still doing 75+ but that could change this coming week,” he shared over the weekend. “I check every other day or so.” 

He’s still waiting for the taxi voucher that he’ll be provided to go to and from the vaccine site, so when the notification pops up, Phillips hopes that he’ll be ready.

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