With the rollout of vaccines, the digital divide has become a major blocking figure. Many cities require vaccine appointments to be registered online, meaning that Americans who don’t have access to the internet are excluded. This vaccination process is closely compared to remote learning, as they both demonstrate how America’s government services are not prepared to move fully digital.
Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting FCC Chairwoman, explains that “the number of Americans without high-speed internet could be closer to 100 million”, not the 18 million that the FCC has incorrectly estimated. In an effort to help out this issue, the FCC has approved an emergency $50 monthly broadband discounts for qualifying Americans, however, those living in rural areas won’t be as included.
According to Dr. Kim Rhoads, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, the people who don’t have access to technology or WiFi are going to have to wait forever and are going to be the ones not to get a vaccine. She says that “in areas like San Francisco’s poorer neighborhoods, where despite being the tech capital of the world, tens of thousands of residents don’t have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet.”
There is a clear connection between the different communities of people who are getting vaccinated and those who have internet access. CDC data states that of the people who have received at least one of their vaccine shots, 65% were white, 8.5% were Hispanic/Latino, 6.7% were Black, and 4.8% were Asian Americans. Closely related, a 2019 report from Pew Research Center shows that 79% of white, 66% of Black, and 61% of Hispanic respondents have access to broadband internet. These statistics prove how communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to their lack of access to the internet and are having a harder time receiving vaccinations.
As we approach our one-year mark of the COVID-19 shut down in America, the next steps we need to be taking are becoming more apparent. It is essential that connectivity and accessibility to the internet need to become a priority, as well as more healthcare workers going out in the field to meet the needs of those most vulnerable. Technology is more important than ever, sometimes a factor in either life or death during these times, and it is imperative that we do as much as we can to bridge the digital divide.
In light of school shutdowns and the transfer to virtual learning, the necessity for wireless internet and suitable learning devices has never been more dire. While US school systems struggle to accommodate the influx of technology requests and internet connectivity issues, countries such as Korea are on track to have universally free wifi.
In the cultural and economic hub of Korea, Seoul, city officials announced a plan to have free wifi and internet access throughout the entire city by 2022. As of recent estimates, 31% of Seoul receives free Wifi access, a percentage that officials hope to increase in the coming years. Upwards of 85 million dollars are being spent on this effort, aiming to offer universal wifi services rather than relying on a telecommunication network.
Seoul is the capital of Korea, including around 9 million inhabitants, around half of Korea’s net population. This city’s recent emphasis on free wireless internet begs the question as to when the US will adopt a similar plan. Considering the size and magnitude of Seoul’s initiative, it seems feasible for the US to follow their footsteps. As the pandemic, and in turn the emphasis on digital learning, heightens, it’s imperative for the US to follow Seoul’s example.
However, Seoul doesn’t plan to extend their internet connectivity to individual households, schools, factories, and warehouses. This could prevent city income from private wifi companies and risk the Korean economy. While their current plans do not include homes and schools, Seoul’s step to providing internet access to all is an admirable one. It opens up avenues for disadvantaged children to use devices in public spaces, where wifi is provided free of charge. Ridding public spaces of paid internet plans is a significant step towards bridging the digital divide, allowing formerly unable children to have a free and reliable internet connection, possibly helping more children attend schools during the global pandemic. Initiatives such as this one beg the question as to why major US cities haven’t adopted the same priorities. Now that wifi has become a prerequisite to learning, it becomes more and more imperative for this access to be extended to all in order to prevent a cyclical educational gap amongst disadvantaged groups.