Broadband: What is the digital divide and what does it look like?

By Emily Chi and Nicole Morgenstern

Last spring as 42 states and territories issued mandatory stay-at-home orders, and millions of people faced questions around what it meant to live, work, and learn from home, our need for quality broadband service grew. While the pandemic may have heightened our awareness of the digital divide and the staggering number of households who are unable to benefit from digital services and opportunities, many communities across the nation have been left behind by the digital divide long before the pandemic, including many Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Although studies have shown that 95% of English-speaking Asian Americans use the Internet, suggesting high levels of digital access and literacy, these studies are often limited in scope and obscure key inequities within our communities. Despite the lack of disaggregated and inclusive data, digital divide indicators — educational attainment, income level, and English proficiency — suggest that a gap in access exists among different ethnic groups in the AAPI community.

AAPI enrollment in welfare programs that can qualify a household for Lifeline, such as SNAP and Medicaid, represents another digital divide indicator illustrating the potential gap in broadband access. In 2015, 2.6% of SNAP recipients were categorized as Asian American. However, the divide between certain ethnic groups was stark: 2.38% of Thai Americans were enrolled in the program, compared with 67.3% of Bhutanese Americans. Furthermore, in 2016, 26% of Asian Americans and 37% of Pacific Islanders were enrolled in Medicaid or some other public insurance program.

These statistics not only illustrate striking disparities within the AAPI community, but also allow us to project a potential lack of broadband access for a substantial proportion of it. Therefore, advocacy organizations and direct service providers that work on the community’s behalf should recognize that the Lifeline program is a critical tool for expanding broadband access and advancing racial and socioeconomic equity.

Parts of rural Hawaii that have long experienced a digital divide and a lack of broadband access saw the direct impact of distance learning on the education of students. With schools closed, administrators had to act quickly to ensure students were able to continue to participate in class, but not every district or state was successful. As students left their schools and attempted to get online from home, their need for quality broadband access grew exponentially, but the infrastructure and the services provided remained insufficient.

Even when families have access to devices at home there are barriers to broadband infrastructure which can impact a student’s ability to get online. One school administrator in Wailuku reported that while the school distributed Chromebooks to students, 29% of students were unable to get online due to limited broadband bandwidth at home. Unreliable internet prevents students from actively participating in class, leading to lower engagement and attendance. In some cases students were forced to seek digital access outside of their home, further putting their families at risk during a public health crisis.

In San Jose, California, a city with a population of just over one million people, nearly 36% of whom are Asian American, it’s estimated that 100,000 residents lack internet access at home. This means that once the stay-at-home order was implemented and people were no longer permitted to attend school or go to work, people without broadband access at home faced increased difficulties in accessing work, school, and healthcare services. While conversations around the digital divide are largely centered around rural communities, we can’t assume that living in an urban environment automatically means you have access to quality and affordable broadband service. The reality is, there are communities across the nation still experiencing the negative consequences of historical digital redlining.

We co-hosted a digital convening with Comcast that brought community partners together to discuss what the digital divide looks like in their respective communities.

While broadband service has become a priority for many over the last year, the reality is, communities across the nation experienced a digital divide long before the pandemic. In March 2021, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC, along with Comcast, co-hosted a Digital Convening aimed at bringing community partners together to discuss what the digital divide looks like in their respective communities. Throughout this event partner organizations discussed that the digital divide includes insufficient broadband access, a lack of equipment, a need for greater education, and more.

As we close out Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month we wanted to highlight the impact that digital divide has on Asian American communities. Over the next few days we will have a series of blogs from partner organizations discussing what the digital divide looks like in their communities and the impact it has on individuals and families. The digital divide will not end when the pandemic ends. Families that were unable to get connected prior to the pandemic will continue to have difficulties unless something is done to address these issues. Broadband access and digital connectivity are critical to our livelihoods and legislators and service providers need to address it as such.

Bridging the digital divide for the AAPI community: The FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit to provide a monthly discount to offset the cost of broadband internet subscriptions. Click on here for more information.

Emily Chi is the Assistant Director of Technology, Telecommunications, and Media, and Nicole Morgenstern is the Programs and Executive Assistant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Advancing Justice – AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.