Divided we fall: How the pandemic could help narrow the digital divide

Advocates are hopeful that heightened awareness of the digital divide during the pandemic could translate to better policy and infrastructure.

The coronavirus pandemic might ultimately hold a silver lining for the digital divide. Students, workers, and job-seekers who lack fast, reliable internet access are at a serious disadvantage in our new stay-at-home reality. But two broadband equality advocates told me the crisis is creating new awareness and urgency that could drive long-term change to bridge technology gaps. More after today’s tech headlines…

Today’s headlines:

🛰 SPACE SOLAR: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory engineers over the weekend launched something called the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module, PRAM, on a test vessel to investigate the possibility of capturing solar energy in space and transmitting it for use on Earth. It’s touted as the first in-orbit test of hardware designed specifically for solar power satellites, which could revolutionize energy harvesting and use, especially in remote areas. (news release)

🌞 MEANWHILE, HERE ON EARTH: This year’s 25th annual National Solar Tour will go on this October, but depending on pandemic conditions and CDC guidance will be entirely virtual, outside only, or indoor with masks and social distancing in place. The event allows people around the country to learn about solar technologies and transitioning to solar energy. (news release)

💬 PUBLIC INPUTThe U.S. Department of Energy is seeking public comment on the framework for a prize competition for innovations that lower water use in existing thermoelectric power plants and enable near-zero water use in new plants. The potential prize would be for novel designs for cooling systems and equipment that uses alternative working fluids. Ideas and comments must be submitted by June 9. (news release)

A catalyst material used to covert ethanol into butene-rich mixed olefins, which can then be readily processed into aviation fuels. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

And now, back to the digital divide…

You’re probably aware by now that the digital divide has left many Americans more isolated and less able to perform many daily functions than the rest of us during this pandemic. That’s why I was surprised at the amount of optimism in my recent conversations with two advocates for improving tech access and education, particularly in rural areas and for low-income individuals.

“Initially, I thought [the pandemic] would stifle innovation. But if anything, it gives me new hope and excitement around innovation and finding new ways to work,” said Nebraska Tech Collaborative President Jona Van Deun. “The tech community in Nebraska has jumped up and said we’re ready to rise to the occasion.” She has seen the tech community assist help with training and migrating businesses online.

Across the Midwest, businesses, school districts, and organizations have stepped up to help fill gaps. At the pandemic’s onset, internet service providers boosted internet speeds and lowered or eliminated costs for those in need. Chicago Public Schools distributed 100,000 devices to families in the district. And Dayton Public Schools strategically positioned specially equipped school buses in neighborhoods of need where they could act as Wi-Fi hotspots.

“People want to immediately solve the problem with a Band-Aid” during the pandemic, such as distributing Wi-Fi hotspots, but better long-term infrastructure is needed, said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “If we build a broadband network, then that infrastructure is in the ground not only for crisis response but also for prosperity in the future.”

Van Deun is hopeful the timing of the crisis and increased awareness will lead to positive outcomes during the Federal Communications Commission’s $16 billion rural broadband auction, starting October 29. The auction incentivizes service providers to build high-speed internet service in underserved rural areas. Yesterday, the FCC announced it would vote on final procedures for the auction at its June 9 meeting.

Individuals, companies, nonprofits, and all levels of government need to collaborate and participate to achieve progress, advocates say.

“Communities have to act together to imagine and live in the future they want to claim… especially speaking about broadband infrastructure, it does require public investment,” Joselyn said. “As a society, we need to recognize that broadband is critical infrastructure and is critical to participate in society. We have an obligation to ensure everybody in society has access.”

Are you seeing any exciting or innovative efforts to bridge the digital divide in your community? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email katie@centered.tech or connect on Twitter @centereddottech.

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