Commentary: Take action now to overcome the digital divide in DE

By Jen Mason

Though many Delawareans take high-speed internet access for granted, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a digital divide with serious implications for some of our state’s most vulnerable residents.

In Sussex County, 18% of families do not have broadband internet access at home, many because it’s unaffordable. And 7% live in areas with no broadband infrastructure at all.

These “internet deserts” have significant economic, social and educational implications.

Someone who otherwise might be able to work from home obviously can’t do so without access to reliable broadband service. Senior citizens and others living on their own can’t arrange telemedicine visits with their physicians or Zoom with family and friends if they can’t access high-speed internet. And children can’t participate in distance learning without broadband service.

The Cape Community Coordination for COVID-19 (CCC4COVID) coalition — a partnership of more than 70 businesses, chambers of commerce, educators, faith communities, health care providers, nonprofit organizations, public libraries and public officials who came together in March to identify and address urgent needs — is gratified that progress is being made to achieve digital equity across the state.

In August, for example, Gov. John Carney announced that the state was allocating $20 million in federal CARES Act funding to expand wireless broadband coverage in rural areas and improve access for low-income families.

The Delaware Department of Technology and Information and the state’s Department of Education joined forces to initially equip 15 towers in Sussex and Kent counties with fixed wireless service, enabling access for students engaged in distance learning by choice or of necessity.

The agencies also negotiated with internet service providers for bulk purchase of installation services and subscription vouchers for an estimated 26,000 income-eligible students across the state. These agreements will cover monthly service charges through Dec. 31, 2021.

But as of mid-October, only 2,000 students — fewer than 10% of those eligible — had taken the necessary steps to participate in the state’s program, which includes an assessment of each student’s connectivity and device needs.

Even worse, current provisions of the CARES Act require that equipment and subscriptions must be purchased, paid for and delivered by Dec. 31, 2020.

In other words, some 24,000 students and their families have just nine weeks to sign up for a service that literally may mean the difference between educational achievement or failure — the latter an outcome with enduring consequences.

There undoubtedly are many reasons for the low participation rate to date. Language barriers, inadequate communication with eligible students, distrust of government and perhaps even pride are among the possibilities.

If you’ve been looking for ways to lend a hand during the ongoing pandemic, here are several steps you can take to help.

First, if you know of families with students who may be eligible for the state’s broadband access program, please contact them to make certain they’re aware of the opportunity and to encourage them to act quickly to sign up. Local schools have all the information needed to get started with the assessment process.

Second, contact Delaware’s representatives in Washington — Sens. Chris Coons and Tom Carper, D-Del., and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., — to urge that they work with their colleagues to extend the deadline for utilizing CARES Act funds beyond the end of this year.

You also might encourage elected representatives at the federal and state levels to look beyond the urgent requirement to ensure that students have access to affordable, reliable broadband service. The internet needs of senior citizens and others on fixed incomes, as well as those out of work who would benefit from online training, merit consideration, too.

Finally, it’s not too soon to be thinking about how income-eligible students who participate in the current program will be able to continue internet service beyond Dec. 31, 2021. Even if the pandemic is behind us and classroom instruction returns to normal, home internet access remains a vital tool for completing homework assignments and other projects.

CCC4COVID neither solicits nor distributes funds, but we would encourage Delaware’s existing nonprofits and foundations to consider how they might help to ensure that all Delaware students have equal access to high-speed broadband.

We’ve begun to make progress toward bridging Delaware’s digital divide. Each of us can make a contribution to ensure that time and artificial deadlines don’t take their toll on our positive momentum.

Jen Mason, convener of the CCC4COVID coalition, is an independent business owner in Lewes.