Center for Digital Health

Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion

In the age of COVID-19, the healthcare system’s reliance on technology has reached an all-time high. We cannot leave communities behind in this transition of care.

Approximately 34 million individuals in the United States do not have access to fixed broadband.[1] Of these Americans without broadband, 68% live in rural communities and 53% earn an income of less than $30,000 per year.[1] While rural residents are known to face broadband-related barriers to receive telehealth services, urban residents similarly have challenges commuting to commercial establishments that offer free broadband access.[2, 3] Even with access to broadband, the delivery of services may be interrupted. Data plan caps on mobile devices limit broadband access and may cause the experience of time lags. Consequently, the quality and/or the delivery of telehealth services may be interrupted. In the age of COVID-19, the healthcare system’s reliance on technology has reached an all-time high. We cannot leave communities behind in this transition of care. 

In 1997, Congress recognized this need to intervene and address the needs of digitally divided communities, particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.[1] Initiatives in local libraries and school systems are known to play a role in filling the gaps among communities facing limited access to broadband services. However, with current social distancing guidelines, providing services in these institutions has been adversely affected.

In an article titled, “What the coronavirus reveals about the digital divide between schools and communities,” author Nicole Turner-Lee presents a community-based solution to this problem: school buses.[2] Two school systems in California and South Carolina started to look beyond the utility of using school buses for student transportation. In the 2016-2017 school year, school buses were repurposed to disseminate WiFi services to communities known for limited to no broadband services.[4, 5] Currently in the United States 480,000 school buses are not being used due to school closings during COVID-19.[2]

As the demand for telehealth and other services has risen, broadband companies have shifted standing models to provide support to digitally divided communities.2 Comcast, in particular, was the first to suspend data caps for program subscribers, increase download speeds, cancel late payment fees, and make WiFi hotspots available to non- customers.[2]

In a time when in-person health visits are limited and televisits are prioritized, systems need to shift resources to make sure existing and future consumers can receive the care they need. Digital inclusion in telemedicine needs to be a priority. While COVID-19 has made this gap more visible, the digital divide will not go away. Technology is ever-changing, and affirmative action in communities impacted by the digital divide is needed in the days moving forward. As demonstrated by South Carolina and California school systems, and broadband companies like Comcast, digital inclusion is possible and actionable.

Works Cited

1) The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. (2019, July). Disconnected: Seven lessons on fixing the digital divide. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.kansascityfed.org/~/media/files/community/digital_divide_final.pdf

2) Turner-Lee, N. (2020, March 27). What the coronavirus reveals about the digital divide between schools and communities. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/03/17/what-the-coronavirus-reveals-about-the-digital-divide-between-schools-and-communities/

3) Mary Van Beusekom | News Writer | CIDRAP News  | May 22, 2. (2020, May 22). COVID-19 reveals telehealth barriers, solutions. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/05/covid-19-reveals-telehealth-barriers-solutions

4) Evans, C. (2016, April 06). Calif. school district puts Wi-Fi on wheels to close digital divide. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/california-coachella-valley-school-district-closes-digital-divide-with-wifi-on-school-buses/

5) Powell, A. (2017, October 08). Greenville County School buses get Wi-Fi over spring break. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.wyff4.com/article/greenville-county-school-buses-get-wi-fi-over-spring-break/9523589