Why do we continue to leave millions of Americans disconnected, unable to reap the economic and social benefits of reliable online access?
The tech giants say it all the time: The future is digital, and moreover, that future is now. If there were ever any doubt that the digital future has arrived, the Covid-19 pandemic has thoroughly erased it. Overnight, government services we used to stand in line or drive across town to access had to find ways to reach us right in our living rooms or on our mobile phones. Some did so more successfully than others, many are still struggling to transition, but there’s no question that we’ve accelerated our shift toward relying and doing even more online.
Even before the pandemic, most of us had daily routines that involved almost nonstop access to online information and services, with messages and updates buzzing on the smartphones in our pockets. When Covid-19 struck, the Internet became our literal lifeline. We video chat with our colleagues, friends, and families. We order the stuff we need on Amazon, groceries from Instacart, and dinner delivery from UberEats. If we lose our Internet connection, our lives come to a grinding halt.
But for millions of Americans, online life and the opportunities and services it provides haven’t just come to halt; they were never connected in the first place. According to the World Economic Forum, 6 percent of the U.S. population — that’s roughly 21 million people — have no high-speed internet connection. And the Pew Research Center has found that Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than whites to have high-speed Internet access or own a traditional computer. While 82 percent of the white population owns a desktop or laptop computer, less than 60 percent of Black and Hispanic individuals own a similar device. Statistics about Internet access show the same type of discrepancy.
In some cases, smartphones can help. Pew has found that smartphone ownership rates are similar for all of these groups, and these devices can be used to access some essential information and public services. But they’re not a sufficient solution. Not all public services are designed to be accessed via a handheld device. Data plans can be expensive, and the service provided by more affordable carriers is often unreliable. Data connections can slow down or be capped when users approach their contract limits.
We can’t allow this digital divide to persist. Especially now when access to information and government services is crucial to everyday life. We’ve been writing about and debating this problem for more than a decade now, but meaningful change has yet to take root. Why do we continue to leave millions of Americans disconnected, unable to reap the economic and social benefits of reliable online access?
At I.F., we have worked with cities and counties including San Diego, Baltimore, Wake County North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. and dozens of other public agencies to confront equity of access head on. Driven by our purpose — to help our clients be more relevant, accountable, and responsive to the communities they serve via digital means — we first help them better understand their communities, including the factors that may be keeping some of their constituents from having full access to information and services. By analyzing where site users are located, which services they’re attempting to access, and whether or not they succeed at their intended tasks, we can start to understand the essential considerations for leveling the playing field. Things like plain language content, mobile-first design, and low bandwidth-friendly technical architecture can help make public sites more accessible to the entire population.
But solving this problem goes beyond sound website design and is going to require all hands on deck. These are the top three things that local governments can do to help bridge the digital divide:
1. Make your sites and your services mobile device-friendly.
Adopting a mobile-first mindset means ensuring not only that your homepage looks great on a smartphone but also that the services you provide, such as payment portals, applications, or contact forms, also work well on a handheld device. That means getting your own site in order and pressuring third-party platforms and integrations to step up their efforts to make their portals accessible. Our research shows that when it counted the most — when the pandemic’s effects became all too clear in the first few months of 2020 — government online services weren’t up to the task. That’s why we emphasize your online services, not just sites.
Do it now: Can you pay a bill or fill out a form on your site from your phone? Test your services — payment portals, registration forms, etc. — on a mobile device. Are they responsive? If not, start converting them to mobile-friendly formats. Do they actually work as intended?
2. Invest in public libraries and their online presence.
Libraries aren’t just about books. They are a community lifeline. Forty-two percent of Black library users report using the libraries’ computers and Internet connections. Post-pandemic, with many physical branches now closed or operating at reduced capacity, libraries’ online resources, such as periodicals, training, and e-books, have helped keep citizens connected and informed.
At I.F., we’ve worked extensively with libraries such as the D.C. Public Library and Texas’ Harris County Public Library, one of the nation’s largest. We help our library clients develop sites that are friendly and engaging and that respond directly to constituencies they serve. We worked closely with the D.C. public library, parsing data by zip code to help address access gaps with features and services tailored to individual communities’ interests and mode of access. Libraries are perpetually underfunded, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to promote true equity of access to their vast digital resources. But in this time of physical disconnection, we need their digital presence to be more robust than ever.
Do it now: Can you register for a library card online and immediately access digital content? A library card unlocks extensive resources, but sometimes the process for getting a card becomes a blocker for expanding access. Does your community have access to an online card application? If not, bring this process online and publicize it broadly. Make it simple to get a library card and immediate access to digital content.
3. Advocate for and invest in universal broadband Internet access.
Ultimately, everyone should be able to get online. Internet access shouldn’t depend on your race or ethnicity, your zip code, or the device you can afford. Just like water and electricity, the Internet has become a basic right and an essential service for daily life. Local governments have the responsibility to ensure equity of access to broadband or other modes of online connectivity, and they should be raising their voices to decry the current inequity.
Do it now: Can you find free or affordable broadband in your area? Sometimes resources are available but poorly publicized. Do you have access to a hub like Wake County, North Carolina’s ConnectWake, helping residents know their options for getting online? If not, create a similar resource to help fill the gaps while you advocate for true online access for all.
The good that can come from digital services and online access can only be fully realized if we acknowledge and confront the current shortcomings, particularly in our Black and brown communities. There’s no single, simple solution that can fix today’s uneven playing field. We have to do all the things laid out above and more. But if we invest in supporting true equity of Internet access, we can all reap the benefits of more effective public services, more dispersed economic opportunities, and a more connected society.