Comment on this article

Attempting to Bridge the Digital Divide

by Howard Trace

The digital divide has been discussed for the better part of a quarter-century, but it took a global pandemic to make it real for many people. Some people were able to work from home using their own equipment and connections to the internet, but others did not have those options. What really highlighted the need for digital access was when children were sent home from school to learn virtually. This one change brought the inequality of digital access to the forefront across the country, from the biggest cities to the most remote corners. There were attempts to try to bring to all what is becoming almost as important as clean water, and there are new endeavours being launched to try to ensure that anyone, anywhere will have access to the internet when they need it.

The digital divide was fairly easy to dismiss when businesses, schools, and public libraries provided access for many people that did not have internet access at home, and when access was readily available with a cell phone that could provide just about everything anyone would need from the internet. The problem with a cell phone is that it provides individual access. Then schools, businesses, and libraries closed and people realized that staring at a six-inch screen all day with only a limited allocation of data (although many data caps were lifted for much of 2020) was not going to meet the needs of a family stuck at home together trying to work, study, and stay entertained. 

After the days of dial-up, most people continued to get internet access either through their cable or telephone provider. This worked well for those that could afford the monthly charges and had a reliable high-speed connection available. Rural areas often had to rely on cellular connections, and in some  locations fixed wireless broadband, which uses a system of antennas to transmit data over limited distances to those with the antennas and equipment to receive the signals. This system was usually slower than what would be available with modern cellular service, and 5G systems are not likely to be widely available in rural areas due to the limited transmission range.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic many public libraries had begun loaning cellular hotspots, and more libraries continue to adopt the practice. Also pre-pandemic, the South Bend (Ind.) Community School Corporation had enabled wifi on buses for use by students during their sometimes long rides to and from school with a plan to park buses on weekends in locations around the community. The wifi only has a range of about 300 feet, and with the arrival of virtual learning the buses are parked in over 30 locations through the communityMonday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. These solutions are great places to start, but they only provide assistance to a limited number of people.

Over the last decade the delivery of internet access via satellite has been available at somewhat competitive rates at the consumer level.  Both HughesNet and Viasat are currently offering satellite internet service. Although these products do provide internet access in locations that might otherwise have none, they do have higher prices than other services, usage limitations similar to cellular data plans, and high latency (delay in data transfer to and from the satellite) that can affect things like videoconferencing and gaming (which as an industry is, unsurprisingly, estimated to exceed movies and sports combined in 2020).

In order to overcome these issues a number of satellite services are launching over the next few years that will see thousands of satellites in low earth orbit providing internet service to every corner of the globe. SpaceX is leading the way, having already launched nearly 900 satellites with a planned total constellation of 12,000 (which could grow by another 30,000) in their Starlink service. Early reports from beta users of the service, at $100 per month and $500 for equipment, are promising, but reports are estimating that as much as three percent of the satellites launched have already failed.  Because there are so many satellites in the constellation, Starlink satellites are equipped with autonomous collision avoidance, and because they are in such a low orbit they will naturally deorbit due to atmospheric drag over the course of one to five year should they become inoperable.

Another company, Oneweb, has already launched over 100 satellites in its 648 satellite constellation. Their current focus is on selling service to companies and governments, and their higher orbits mean they can have fewer satellites that SpaceX. Finally, there is Amazon, whose Project Kuiper has received approval for a constellation of over 3,200 satellites focusing on unserved and underserved communities in the coming years.

There is no magic formula to bridging the digital divide (although investing in large-scale fiber optic networking could help) and many are making the attempt, but the first step to making the divide manageable is declaring broadband internet access an essential service like water or electricity. We have moved beyond a manufacturing economy to an information economy and without ready access to information that economy cannot succeed. Libraries are the protectors and purveyors of data, information, and knowledge and society has moved beyond the point where we can protect those things within the walls of our buildings. We must look beyond our walls to ensure that data, information, and knowledge are both available and attainable to all.

Copyright 2021 by Howard Trace

About the author:

Howard Trace serves as director of the American Legion National Headquarters Library & Museum Division, a position he has held since 2008. His library experience spans three decades in public, academic, and special libraries. He holds a bachelor’s in history and religious studies from Purdue University, master of science in space studies from the University of North Dakota, and a master in library science from Indiana University.