COVID-19 Shines Spotlight on Digital Divide


It’s been more than 30 years since an English scientist conceptualized the World Wide Web in a 1989 memorandum titled “Information Management: A Proposal,” yet deep disparities in internet access still span across race, income level and location.

The digital divide, as it’s become known, is nothing new, according to Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

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“The digital divide isn’t new,” Siefer said. “We’ve always had this digital divide, but Covid has drawn attention to it. And Covid has drawn attention mostly to our youth and school kids, but it’s really much larger than that.”

Siefer said a conservative estimate based on U.S. census data counts about 18 million U.S. households without internet access of any kind – broadband service and smartphones included. Four million of those households are located in rural areas and 14 million in urban environments.

“So prior to Covid, there was just an assumption that the digital divide was a rural infrastructure availability issue,” Siefer said. “But Covid has drawn to light that there are lots of families in urban areas where the infrastructure is available but people aren’t subscribing to it.”

Siefer pointed to two main reasons for a lack of access: the high cost of internet service and devices as well as a need for increased digital literacy, or knowledge surrounding the use of digital platforms.

In June, the city of Chicago unveiled “Chicago Connected” – a four-year program to provide high-speed internet to approximately 100,000 Chicago Public Schools students – the estimated number of CPS students without internet access, based on census data.

Siefer along with Chalkbeat Chicago senior reporter Mila Koumpilova join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the digital divide in Chicago and throughout the United States.


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