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Wifi symbol in front of a stack of WWU textbooks. Xfinity and public libraries have recently provided WWU students with free internet access during the stay-at-home order. // Illustration by Emma Toscani

The internet becomes a necessity in the midst of the pandemic.

By Kaleigh Carroll

Food, water and shelter have long been considered the three basic necessities for life, but in our increasingly technological society, a fourth need is emerging: internet access.

Before the pandemic, the internet served as a gateway to information, social connections and vital services like education. Now that virtual learning and remote work are becoming more commonplace, the disparities in internet access are becoming glaringly apparent.

This disparity has been coined “the digital divide,” because it displays the gaps in reliable internet access communities have due to a lack of quantity — or quality — of internet access.

In our digital age, Wi-Fi should be a right, not a privilege. 

Yet, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 24.7 million Americans do not have access to basic broadband internet, and Microsoft’s own data indicates that figure could be as high as 162.8 million Americans.

The digital divide is even prevalent in Washington state.

According to an ongoing survey by the Washington State Broadband Office, only 70% of Washingtonians have access to broadband internet. Of the 30% that don’t have access, 94% said it was because broadband internet was not offered in their area.

Broadband access provides people with a high-speed internet connection that is always on and is used in technologies like wireless, satellite and fiber internet.

Oftentimes, people who live in rural areas or are classified as low-income are affected most by a lack of reliable internet access as shown by studies from Pew Research Center.

A 2019 survey from the center showed that only 63% of rural adults reported having access to broadband internet compared to 75% of their urban and 79% of their suburban counterparts.

Another 2018 study from the center found that 24% of teens whose families make less than $30,000 a year said a “lack of a dependable computer or internet connection often or sometimes prohibits them from finishing their homework.” But when a teen’s family makes $75,000 or more a year, that figure drops to 9%.

Students aren’t the only ones affected by the digital divide: Broadband internet access has also been linked to economic factors like unemployment.

An analysis by Microsoft displayed a connection between lower broadband usage and higher unemployment figures. In Washington state, the 10 counties with the highest unemployment rate used nearly 40% less broadband internet than the 10 counties with the lowest unemployment rate.

Thankfully, there are actions being taken at a statewide and citywide level to combat the digital divide.

In 2019 the Second Substitute Senate Bill 5511 was enacted by the State Legislature. The bill recognizes “that broadband access is critical to the residents of Washington for health care, education, and essential services,” and that it “enhances public health and safety while providing economic opportunities.”

Using this legislation, the state has created several long-term goals, the first of which is to provide all Washington businesses and residences with access to high-speed broadband by 2024.

Locally, the Bellingham City Council passed Resolution 2020-31 in August which created the Broadband Advisory Workgroup. The group will be tasked with evaluating “the possibility of municipally-owned broadband” and reporting their findings to the council.

Both of these actions represent a step in the right direction, but they don’t guarantee change. Holding our city and state accountable to these goals means being aware of the steps they are or aren’t taking toward progress.

The digital divide prevents more than just access to the internet. It keeps students from reaching their full potential, economies from growing and communities from thriving. It holds us all back, so we must tackle it together.

Ensuring people are digitally literate, aware of how to properly use technology, is the next step our communities should be looking toward as we bring equal internet access to all.


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