In these dark days of COVID-19, we have quickly become an online country. Millions of workers are now away from their offices working remotely via the internet, while they and those not in the workforce continue to rely intensively on an online umbilical cord — often wireless — for vital news and information about the pandemic. Digital connections also enable us to be in touch seamlessly with family and friends during this crisis, which is essential to our overall well-being.
Numerous analysts have pointed out the persistent digital divide we face — namely, that at least 20 million American households currently lack broadband internet access. This divide is especially pronounced in rural areas and among those who are not benefitting from an existing federal Lifeline program that subsidizes internet access at home. This is a real problem that extends to both those who are unserved and underserved online.
But less publicized is the portion of our population that already has residential broadband capability, but believes there is no value in connecting. It may be shocking to realize that 10% of U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center, are not using the internet at all. This figure has been relatively static for more than four years. We need to focus immediate attention on how to begin flattening that curve, too.
That’s because there continues to be a drop off in those 65 and older who never go online — 27% of them in the latest Pew Center survey. This age group also is at the highest medical risk for contracting COVID-19, and would benefit greatly by access to vital health and safety information on a 24/7 basis.
There also are economic implications to refusing to go online, again hurting those who may benefit tremendously from internet connections. In addition to health and safety information, telework largely requires such connections. Those who are unwilling to undertake getting connected, especially when the cost may be subsidized by an employer, are increasing the likelihood that they will be considered more expendable in the workforce. Yet according to the Pew Center data, roughly three in 10 adults with less than a high-school education do not use the internet.
Other demographic analyses highlight disparities based on household income and community type; various factors are at play regarding why this problem exists. The important point to focus on now is developing practical ways to reduce the percentage of nationwide internet nonusers as soon as possible, so that we have a broader population base who can take advantage of the internet’s information and communications capabilities.
PSAs Can Build Awareness
Traditional mass media may be the best route to let nonusers know why the national effort to combat the pandemic requires them to go online. Companies can help underwrite public-service ads in print and on radio and television to creatively get this message out. Public health officials, government leaders, and family members and neighbors also can be part of a coordinated Get Online Now campaign.
Although this will not alleviate concerns about those without broadband availability, such a campaign at least could help persuade millions of Americans that it is both in their self-interest and the national interest to join an online community that welcomes them now in a time of great collective need.
Stuart N. Brotman is a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., based in its Science and Technology Innovation Program.