How COVID-19 Has Underscored the Digital Divide

About This Episode

COVID-19 has underscored yet another reality that many communities already knew: Broadband access — or reliable, high-speed internet access — is a necessity, not a luxury.

APA's Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP, talks with Anna Read, AICP, an officer for the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, about the basics of the issue. Read clears up some common misconceptions about the digital divide and describes the work that several communities across the country are doing to close the broadband gap. The two also discuss how planners can get involved in local broadband processes and help shape requirements for access.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:09.260] Sagar Shah, AICP: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. My name is Sagar Shah [AICP], and I am the planning and community health manager at the American Planning Association. Today we have with us Anna Read. Anna is a research officer with the broadband research initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Anna is an AICP planner, and prior to working with Pew, she worked at the American Planning Association. So she was a colleague for, for, for a year or so. Today, we are going to discuss the topic of broadband access and digital divide with specific emphasis on three aspects. First, understanding the basics of broadband access. Second, discussing the role of stakeholders, including planners, local government, and states in addressing the digital divide. And third, the effect of COVID-19 on broadband access. This topic is specifically important in challenging times such as this, when we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic and must rely on broadband for various purposes, including education, health, work, and other basic needs of life. Anna has most recently been working on a project to analyze how states are expanding the broadband access. And I'm very excited to have this opportunity to talk with her on this topic. Anna, welcome. And thank you for joining us today.

[00:01:33.780] Anna Read, AICP: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:35.670] SS: So let's start this discussion with some basics. Anna, what is the technical definition of "broadband"? And can you also explain what is digital divide?

[00:01:48.420] AR: So broadband is high-speed, reliable internet access. The Federal Communications Commission defines this as speeds of 25 megabits per second in the download direction and 3 megabits per second in the upload direction. Having broadband access means having access to that physical connection, being able to subscribe to an internet connection at those speeds of 25 megabits per second and 3 megabits per second.

[00:02:15.750] SS: And can you also explain a little bit about, like, what is digital divide and how is it, is connected with broadband access?

[00:02:22.940] AR: So the digital divide is the divide or the gap between people who have access to broadband and who don't have access. And then it also encompasses some of those additional challenges related to being able to make use of that access. So the affordability of a connection and then the skills to be able to make meaningful use of a connection when it is available.

[00:02:46.510] SS: Great. So do we know how many people in the U.S. do not have access to broadband? I have — we have seen various numbers out there in media, but we'd like to ask you, what do you think?

[00:02:59.380] AR: This is a surprisingly challenging question to answer. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 21 million people do not have access to broadband, again at speeds of 25 megabits per second, 3 megabits per second. This number is widely considered to be an under estimate. So what we do know is that tens of millions of Americans do not have access to high-speed, reliable internet in their homes.

[00:03:25.070] SS: So, can, can you explain how the broadband network works as such?

[00:03:31.030] AR: Sure, we, we like to use an analogy that compares it to roads in order to sort of explain the network and the major components. So you can think of it in three main parts. The first is the internet backbone. And that's kind of like your interstate highway. It's those major data routes that connect large cities to each other. And then you have what's called the middle mile. And that's kind of like your arterial roads. It connects those major data routes to the last mile of the network, and then it's also often what directly connects major businesses, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, those large customers. And then that last mile of the network, which is what a lot of the focus around expanding access is, is around, is like your local streets. It provides that direct access to your home. And that's that connection to residents, and that, again, is really where a lot of the focus around extending access in communities is focused.

[00:04:33.460] SS: That is really great. I mean, it's a great analogy, especially for planners considering we all work on transportation projects and programs. So you mentioned earlier that it is very difficult to know how many people have access — or don't have access to broadband. And there are various figures. I would — are there any other myths or misconceptions about broadband access?

[00:05:00.960] AR: Yeah, there are several myths and misconceptions about broadband access. The first is that this is just a rural problem. And while the majority of Americans who lack a connection or that physical access to the infrastructure are in rural areas, many of them are also in urban and suburban areas. So it is a problem that affects, you know, urban communities, it affects suburban communities, and it affects rural communities. Another misconception is that this problem will be solved by some of the new technologies. It's a, it's a long-term infrastructure investment, and it's a, it's a challenging problem to solve, and some of the newer technologies, such as 5G or other wireless technologies, still involve a lot of wired infrastructure in order to work. And so there is going to be a continued need for focus on how to close this gap in areas that are currently unserved. So a third myth or misconception is that mobile devices or mobile connections are a sufficient substitute for a home connection. And there are several elements associated with this. One is, you know, the device that you're using for a mobile connection, and the other is that mobile connections often have limits on the amount of data that people are able to use. That may not allow them quite the same access as someone who has a home connection. And then finally, and I think something that this, this pandemic has, has really highlighted is the role of community-anchor institutions or public-access points, and that those play a really important role in getting people online in communities and providing access to people who don't have access at home. But again, they're not a full substitute for that residential access.

[00:06:54.610] SS: So talking about digital divide, why do you think there is digital divide? There are — we know a couple of reasons, but based on your research, can you briefly explain two or three major reasons for people not having broadband access?

[00:07:09.410] AR: One of the major challenges is the cost of building networks, again, this is a major investment in physical infrastructure, and as providers build out these networks, they look at that return on investment. You know, if you look at places that often have very good service, like D.C., you have a population density, you have a density of business and institutions. So here in D.C., we have over, over 10,000 people per square mile, right? If you look at Loudoun County, which is a suburban county in the D.C. metro area, that goes down to about 800 people per square mile. And then if you look at one of the counties that we profile in our report, Montrose County, Colorado, which has worked really hard to bring both middle-mile and last-mile service to the community, that population density is less than 20 people per square mile. And so you're looking at a much smaller subscriber base, but a similar need for physical — you know, the, the infrastructure that goes into providing those networks doesn't necessarily change substantially. And so with that, you also have considerations of the demographics: areas that may have older populations, areas that may have lower-income populations and then maybe less likely to subscribe to that service. So that challenge of that business case or that return on investment for providers is a really major challenge, and that's what a lot of the grant programs that states have put in place are trying to do is help create that business case to bring service to those unserved and underserved communities. And another major challenge has been that it's really only recently that we've seen a shift and a greater awareness of broadband as a necessity rather than a luxury. And this is something that really we heard a lot in our research that state broadband directors, or people engaged in this space, several years ago were spending a lot more time educating policymakers that this is important, this is something that your community needs, this is not a luxury. And now they're spending a lot more of their time, you know, educating people about how to access their grant programs, how to engage in the state planning processes, things like that, as opposed to, as opposed to that this is something that your community needs.

[00:09:21.540] SS: Great. So how important is access to broadband? In other words, what are the implications of not having broadband access, especially in challenging times such as during pandemic that we had experiencing right now?

[00:09:37.280] AR: As the pandemic has really highlighted, broadband is foundational technology to so many of the things that we do in our daily lives. You know, COVID-19 has really illustrated that broadband is necessary to be able to access education at home. It's necessary to be able to telework. It's necessary for access to healthcare and services and for the ability to connect with family and friends.

[00:10:01.370] SS: Those are real implications of broadband on — during these challenging times. One additional thing to mention, especially for planners, is the public engagement or the public participation piece, which is many times required by state legislature. And we know that members, APA members, and planners all over the country are facing that challenge in terms of doing sort of equitable, authentic public participation, which is virtual now. So that's an added challenge. Thank you so much, Anna, for this, like, basics of — on broadband. One major reason that you could talk about this topic in great depth with us is because of the project that you're working on. And I would like the people listening to this podcast know that the research that you are working is first of its kind and has been cited by various news media outlets such as Boston Globe, Wired magazine, Marketplace, Governing, US News and World Report, and et cetera. Anna, congratulations on this project. It's a, it's a — amazing project. So let's talk a little bit about the project that you're working on. Can you briefly explain the broadband research initiative and throw some light on the motivation behind focusing on this topic?

[00:11:20.650] AR: Sure. So the Broadband Research Initiative at Pew is focused on understanding the role of states in expanding broadband access. And as I noted earlier, we know that at least 21 million Americans, and likely many more, do not have access to broadband in their homes. And this is a very real challenge that impacts, again, people's ability to access education, to access healthcare, and as you highlighted, you know, the ability to engage in civic opportunities, to engage in community planning processes. And there has been a lot of focus on efforts at the federal level to expand broadband access and some of the innovative efforts at the local level, but over the last few years, states have really been taking a leadership role in addressing this challenge. And we wanted to understand what states are doing and those activities that states have undertaken to close gaps in broadband access.

[00:12:23.040] SS: So based on your research, can you explain the roles of states and telecommunications companies in expanding broadband access and connecting people that don't have broadband? There are various stakeholders involved when it comes to making it possible for everyone to have access to broadband, but specifically talking about the — your research project and what you found in terms of what states are doing to improve access. Can you throw some light on that?

[00:12:52.860] AR: So we looked at our research in two phases. We started with a scan of all 50 states looking at broadband policy and the programmatic activity in those states as well to get a full sense of the landscape. And from there, we identified a set of nine case-study states. And we spent most of last spring visiting those states and talking to a wide range of broadband stakeholders. And we talked with not just the state broadband programs — we talked with, you know, local governments and officials. We talked with community organizations, broadband service providers, to get a full picture of what states are doing. And across those nine states, we identified a set of five, what we're calling promising practices. And those are practices that we see across, across states that are helping to close gaps in broadband access. And the practices that we identified are stakeholder outreach and engagement, creating a policy framework, planning and capacity building, and then funding and operations. So setting up those broadband grant programs. And then program evaluation and evolution. So, you know, evaluating programs and using that to inform next steps.

[00:14:11.060] SS: OK, so can you give some examples of those promising practices that have been used to narrow the digital divide and improve access to broadband?

[00:14:22.750] AR: Yeah, so starting with stakeholder outreach and engagement, states are engaging with multiple stakeholders at both the state and local levels and recognizing that, you know, broadband really does impact a broad range of priorities, such as economic development, education, healthcare. They're working with stakeholders across those different sectors. And so we see things like California's Broadband Council, which brings together representatives of state agencies, including the Department of Information Technology, the California Department of Transportation, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and others to make sure that broadband is being addressed in the activities of those agencies. And then you see states like Virginia, which has its Commonwealth Connect Coalition. And the Commonwealth Connect Coalition is a group of stakeholders, including internet service providers, major employers in the state, large companies, and professional associations that represent a range of professions, such as healthcare, libraries, etc., that help advance those broadband policy priorities.

[00:15:38.790] SS: Great. So thank you for explaining in detail the methodology that you guys adopted to, in this research project and some of the things that you found in the project. Now, moving on, and let's talk about, like, role of planners, right? So what is the role of planner in improving broadband access? Because I know that broadband is sort of like an infrastructure project, and, and planners play an important role when it comes to infrastructure projects. So can you throw some light in terms of what is the role of planner there?

[00:16:09.470] AR: Yeah. So as I noted, one of our promising practices that we identified is planning and capacity building, and there's a significant amount of, of planning that goes into getting to broadband projects, and that's not just on the infrastructure side. Several states are funding local broadband planning efforts, and these are focused on helping communities identify those needs related to broadband and addressing those challenges, looking at where existing assets are, and doing a lot of those things that planners, you know, are actively engaged in. So there's a role for planners to participate in these local broadband committees that exist in communities across the country to participate in these local broadband processes and, you know, help shape those, those goals and tho— that path for broadband in their communities. And then we're also seeing states start to incorporate broadband into requirements for comprehensive planning processes. So both Georgia and Virginia now require that broadband be considered in local comprehensive plans. And so as those plans are updated, there's a real role for planners to play in engaging in the conversation around broadband.

[00:17:19.770] SS: Yeah, very true. I was just, before, before this podcast, I was in a call, a webinar where we were talking with 42 communities throughout the U.S. that are working on complete street projects, basically trying to increase physical activity. And one of the questions of the facilitated discussion was what are the challenges they're facing with COVID-19? And the biggest challenge that was identified was access to broadband, because they are not able to do so many things in their project, for which they have got funding from CDC and federal government to do because, because they don't have access to broadband. And they're talking about completely changing their scope of work based on the challenges. So thank you for sharing that. Now, talking about planners, how can planners work with states and telecom companies to ensure that broadband access is equitable and is distributed in such a way that is best for the community?

[00:18:17.220] AR: So, again, there's a role for planners to play in broadband planning processes in the — at both the community and the state level. You know, a number of states have broadband plans as well, which address a range of issues from, related to broadband access, broadband adoption. North Carolina, for example, also includes the specific challenge of the homework gap, so that the gap between students who have access to broadband at home and those who do not. There's a role for planners to play, you know, in helping address those community access points and then also how to access those community access points, because that's a challenge as well. You know, if you have a community access point — so a place where public WiFi is available — but it's actually very difficult for the members of your community who need to use it to access, that's a real challenge, and that's the kind of thing that planners often look at, you know, fairly holistically when they're looking at these issues in the community. And then another role that planners can play, especially those who work for, you know, community-based organizations, is helping connect residents to low-income offers that providers have available. So these offers, a lot of people have probably read about in relation to COVID-19, provide affordable access to community members, but the requirements for different providers are different. So some may be for households with school-age children, some may include senior citizens, and trusted community organizations can play a really important role in helping connect residents to those offers, helping residents navigate the challenges of understanding whether or not they're eligible and signing up for those offers.

[00:20:05.540] SS: So talking about the role of planners, are there examples of communities, specific regions, or states where planners have played a critical role in improving broadband access, have worked with states to achieve that?

[00:20:20.760] AR: Yeah, so a great example is the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which recently had an open-access middle-mile project called Project Thor come online. And several years ago, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments received funding from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs [DOLA], which provides support to regional broadband planning efforts. And they completed a broadband plan that looked at what some of the challenges and gaps in their region were and also identified the need to hire a regional broadband coordinator. Over the last several years, they've continued to work on addressing those challenges and were able to bring together 14 local governments within the region and put together this project, which again is a 480-mile open access, which means that multiple providers can use it to provide service, a middle-mile network. And it provides redundancy to rural communities in the region. So one of the big challenges in rural regions is you often sort of have, you know, one route in and out of the region. So if there's, there is something that disrupts that service, the internet service is down until that's fixed, and creating a redundant path means that the data can travel in multiple different ways. So if you have some disruption, it doesn't necessarily disrupt the internet service. And Project Thor received an additional grant from the Department of Local Affairs [DOLA], as well as matching funds from the local governments that were participating in the project. And it really is a result of that planning process that DOLA funded several years ago.

[00:22:07.010] SS: That is awesome. Thank you for sharing your insights on, on the role of planners. That was really helpful. Now, let's talk about the topic that is in mind of everyone these days. That is COVID-19. This pandemic has made us think about various aspects of our, of our life and work. One such thing that has come to the forefront is the necessity of broadband in carrying out our daily functions: as you mentioned, education, work, telehealth. So just as COVID-19 has made the internet a necessity for Americans, it has impacted the short- and long-term plans of state broadband initiatives, right? So, for example, the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, along with KCST [operator of state-owned MassBroadband 123 (MB123) network], has launched a new WiFi hotspot program through which they are setting up free WiFi hotspots at public institutions, such as libraries, police stations, and so on — especially in the communities that are unserved. Another example is the Colorado Broadband Office. Again, Colorado example, based on what you gave earlier — recently, said that the major focus for them is maintaining the COVID-19 broadband resources webpage that breaks down the information for multiple audiences, such as general public, first responders, healthcare providers, et cetera. So those were, like, a couple of examples, and I'm sure you know a lot more about this than I do, but can you please elaborate on what steps are local governments taking to address the issue of digital divide, with specific focus on local governments?

[00:23:40.790] AR: So local governments can actively engage in planning processes around broadband and these processes can again help ensure that, you know, the broadband projects, the infrastructure projects, that are built meet the needs of the communities. This, in turn, can help ensure that the infrastructure projects are successful, that they have higher adoption rates, that, that community members subscribe to them when they come online by getting people engaged in the process and using that process as a way to educate and inform stakeholders and community leaders. Local governments also play an important role in the infrastructure projects themselves. A number of the successful projects that we see across the country that have been funded by state broadband programs are public-private partnerships in which local governments are actively engaged. Some states, like Virginia, require that the projects that they fund be public-private partnership between local government and an internet service provider, and other states like Minnesota incentivize public-private partnerships through their grant processes. Several other states also have what are called broadband-ready communities designations, and this is a way for local governments to show that they are committed to expanding broadband access. It involves passing a local ordinance or adopting a resolution depending on the state and establishing a single point of contact, which is often in the planning department for internet service providers to contact related to, all things broadband related. And then I think, you know, you touched on the, the public WiFi, those public WiFi access points. And that's another place where local governments can engage.

[00:25:31.340] SS: Yeah, that is great. Now, what about, like, maybe you already mentioned this, but what about states and telecom companies — or providers, as you say. I'm learning new things now [laughs]. What steps they can do to narrow the digital divide in this challenging times? And most importantly, are these strategies or policies or whatever they're creating, are they short-term solutions to digital divide, or are they like a long-term solution?

[00:25:57.510] AR: So a number of internet service providers and provider associations have signed on to the Keeping Americans Connected pledge, which is a pledge not to disconnect residential or small business customers, to waive late fees, and to open WiFi hotspots to the public, which is a way of helping ensure that during the pandemic, people have access to broadband at home and are able to access education, are able to work from home, are able to access telehealth, you know, have appointments with their doctor and not have to go to a healthcare facility. And then, as you mentioned, a number of states have taken some steps to address, address this challenge. In addition to the examples that you've given, several states are considering, in their COVID relief packages, additional funding for their broadband grant programs. And so they're both, they're both short-term solutions right now that can, you know, help keep people connected throughout the duration of this pandemic. And then there's also, there's also the need for continued investment and long-term solutions to continue to close the digital divide.

[00:27:09.370] SS: Do you think — I mean, the one good thing that came out of COVID, if you want to look at that way, is basically it has brought this issue of broadband access front and center, right? Everybody is talking about it. Everybody is paying attention. Do you think there is, like, a silver lining to COVID-19 in relation to broadband access? Has there been greater urgency among stakeholders to collaborate and provide access to those people who don't have access?

[00:27:34.930] AR: The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely shone a light on the challenges related to not having broadband access. These challenges have always been there. And, you know, the very rapid transition to learning and working from home has made them more evident and brought more attention to the need to address these challenges.

[00:27:58.100] SS: Are there any resources that you would recommend for planners when — if they want to learn more about this issue or topic?

[00:28:06.220] AR: I would really recommend that planners look to resources available through their state broadband programs. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration maintains a website that has a list of states with active programs and links to those programs. The North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, together with the Appalachian Regional Commission, has a really great toolkit — community broadband toolkit — and it's a, just a good general resource on broadband and engaging the community around broadband. I would recommend that as a resource. And I would recommend Pew's state broadband policy explorer and our report on how states are expanding broadband access, both of which are available at Pew trusts dot org [].

[00:28:57.190] SS: Thank you so much for talking with us on this important topic. Thank you for letting us know the basics of broadband. I'm, I'm sure we learned a lot on that. Also talking about the role of planners and highlighting, highlighting the role that other stakeholders, such as states, the services providers, et cetera, play. And more importantly, talking about how COVID-19, has affected broadband access. With that, thank you, Anna, for chatting with us. And we all appreciate your, your knowledge and experience on this topic.

[00:29:30.670] AR: Thank you for the invitation.


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