The US' digital divide is about more than just access

The digital divide is becoming smaller and higher-stakes at the same time
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

As the US’s digital divide shrinks, the situation also grows more complex.

As of 2021, 77% of Americans have access to home broadband internet, per a Pew Research report released in early June. That’s up from 73% in 2019, but it still leaves almost a quarter of the population without any home internet. The gap between urban/suburban and rural broadband access, a major vector of the digital divide, shrunk from 16 to 7 percentage points over the same period.

But in the Covid-19 era, home broadband access isn't a binary yes/no. People need access to high-quality internet capable of supporting essential tasks like video calls for work, school, telehealth appointments, or downloading educational materials. Prior to Covid-19, for example, about 15% of American workers logged in from home; In April 2020, almost half of the US workforce worked from home.

“It’s been manageable [until now] because [people] had some kind of connectivity. They had DSL, they still used phone lines, they had low connectivity. But those speeds cannot deliver the services that are needed today. The problems we had before with the internet when it wasn't an essential service are different from the problems we have today,” Anthony Goonetilleke, group president of media, network & technology at Amdocs, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Over a quarter of Americans who do not have home broadband (27%) cite exorbitant costs as the main reason. Other reasons include the belief that smartphones are sufficient (19%), access to internet options outside the home (9%), and service unavailability (9%).

Proposed gap-closers...


Legislation has the potential to help bridge the gap between those with quality internet access and those without. There are several proposals floating around right now, but there is no telling how long they will take to pass—if they pass at all.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan initially pledged $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure, promote competition among providers, and reduce the cost of internet, with a goal of reaching 100% broadband coverage. Since entering talks with Republican members of Congress, Biden has lowered that price tag to $65 billion.

For its part, Congress has proposed the Hotspots and Online Technology and Services Procurement for our Tribes and States (HOTSPOTS) Act and the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act to help deal with the problem.

  • The HOTSPOTS Act would create a two-year, $200 million hotspot pilot program to provide states with internet-connected devices at libraries in low-income and rural communities.
  • The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act seeks to put $94 billion toward building high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved areas, with a goal of achieving 100% broadband coverage in the country.

In terms of service standards, the FCC considers 25 mbps to be the bare minimum required for the designation “high speed internet.” But in a household with more than one person, this would barely suffice. In March 2021, four US senators called on the FCC to update its definition to 100 mbps to accommodate multiple users and higher data transfers from video calls, gaming, and streaming.

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“While we recognize that in truly hard-to-reach areas, we need to be flexible in order to reach unserved Americans, we should strive to ensure that all members of a typical family can use these applications simultaneously,” the senators said in a statement. “There is no reason federal funding to rural areas should not support the type of speeds used by households in typical well-served urban and suburban areas.”


A proposed privatized solution instead of installing thousands of miles of fiber? Reaching for the stars.

Space satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) operate without the ground-based infrastructure required by telcos and governments. As long as customers have clear sightlines to space and a satellite dish, they will be able to access high speed internet.

The commercial market for LEO satellites is already worth an estimated $3.1 billion, per Fortune Business Insights. Companies such as Starlink by SpaceX, OneWeb, Lightspeed by Telesat, and Project Kuiper by Amazon are at the forefront, but are generally in beta and have limited coverage as a result.

“They [LEOs] are expected to pump a lot of satellite broadband capacity into a market that has been historically limited in terms of the throughput and much more expensive in terms of the pricing,” John Garrity, an international connectivity consultant, told us.

LEO satellites show promise for the future of internet access, but they’re not without their own problems too. For one, they can be inconsistent. A review of Starlink from The Verge said the service had spells of spotty connectivity, inconsistent speeds, and unreliability in high wind and rain.

Astronomers also have concerns, ranging from satellites blocking their star studies to a proliferation of space junk obstructing future rocket launches. Without interstellar regulation, space companies could wind up endangering each other and future space missions.

Bottom line

The rapid, immediate transition to a digital workplace and school environment has left behind many who don’t have access to the internet. There are both public and private solutions that hold promise, but there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding both.

And every day they are not implemented, people go without what is now essential infrastructure, reinforcing divides and barring access to those who need it most: Just 57% of those who make under $30,000 per year have home internet, per Pew, compared to 80% of those who make between $30,000 and $75,000.

“So much of the pandemic response has depended on digital technology and connectivity,” Arndt Husar, senior public management specialist at the Asian Development Bank told us. “And so much of the post-pandemic recovery phase will depend on who has good coverage and in which context you find the right affordability levels of digital connectivity.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.