It’s October, almost seven months into a pandemic that has turned the world upside down. Since the shutdowns in March, folks have adapted; businesses have gotten creative with curbside pickup and contactless delivery. Families have re-learned the beauty of game nights, home cooking and road trips.
But while nearly every other facet of life seems to have learned, experimented, and adapted to this new normal, it is as if schools have been largely caught unaware, struggling to decide between in person, virtual or hybrid learning, struggling to equip all students so they can access remote learning, and failing to adequately prepare teachers to add remote teaching to their skill set. Most maddening of all, there remains nearly 15 million students without the home internet connection, which is crucial for learning in this new normal.
Whose Job Is It To Close The Digital Divide?
But whose job is it anyway? Whose job is it to close the digital divide and ensure all students, regardless of their geographic location or income, have internet access at home?
Perhaps it falls to the internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Spectrum and AT&T to take the high road and meet the moment by voluntarily closing the digital divide. They could do this by expanding into rural America and creating free WiFi hotspots in American cities and suburbs.
But while such selflessness would certainly be welcomed, such economic austerity can hardly be expected of private corporations whose sole purpose is to create products to sell for a profit. It would be a wonderful thing for these companies to take on the mantle of leadership during this unprecedented time by voluntarily closing the digital divide, as indeed they could. However getting an American corporation to do what is right, rather than what is profitable, is about as easy as drawing blood from a stone.
Perhaps it falls to school districts, school boards, superintendents and teachers unions to re-balance budgets, make concessions, and find the dollars necessary to ensure all students have access to the internet in their homes.
But districts across the country, particularly those serving families in poverty, are hardly flush with cash. Indeed, given the perverse and widespread funding formulas that equate school budgets with local property values, the very communities whose poverty makes internet subscriptions unattainable are the very communities whose districts can barely afford adequate numbers of teachers, nurses, counselors, or infrastructure repairs. No matter how much shuffling such districts do, an under-resourced district cannot afford to bridge the digital divide for their students.
Perhaps it falls to the federal government and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to once and for all make the internet a public utility, thereby ensuring that internet access is as ubiquitous in the 21st century as landline telephones were in the 20th.
According to the FCC’s own website, the FCC is responsible for “communications law, regulation, and technological innovation … promoting competition, innovation, and investment in broadband services.” Further, current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai himself declared that “every American who who wants to participate in the digital economy should be able to do so.”
But talk, unlike an internet subscription, is cheap. The FCC has flat out refused to take the strongest stance in its arsenal by voting against making the internet a public utility, instead protecting ISP profits. So while it seems that it is indeed the FCC’s job, there is little indication they are willing to do it.
Of course, Congress could make the FCC do it. Congress has the power to direct significant money to the cause of getting America connected, and indeed many strong voices have called for exactly that. But over the many months since the CARES Act stimulus expired, we have seen just how shamefully both parties are willing to put their own political gamesmanship over the very real and urgent needs of families and children. Optimistically, some meaningful legislation might pass in 2021, but that does nothing to replace the near full-year of schooling so many children will have lost by that point.
So, perhaps it falls to the states; the governors and legislatures, to declare states of emergency or create new tax resources to expand internet access into all homes in their districts, counties, townships, and cities. It is the governors who are charged with guaranteeing the rights and protections of their citizens, including the right to education found in nearly if not all state constitutions. It is the state legislatures who are responsible for state budgets and the levying of taxes and the funding of vital state institutions, schools chief among them.
So why aren’t we seeing decisive and sweeping efforts from these state leaders to connect households during this pandemic? In the absence of corporate largesse, fully funded school systems, and state and federal leadership, it is difficult to say for sure who shoulders the responsibility for bridging the digital divide. There are countless organizations, institutions and individuals who could provide broadband access for millions of disconnected students, but there is no single entity that must do it.
Perhaps that’s because each of these entities share responsibility for a solution. And, ironically, perhaps that’s the very reason nothing is happening. If we want to close the digital divide and connect all of our kids, we must act on every level. I’m hoping we do this—but I’m not holding my breath.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...