Susan Morley runs the behavioral health clinic at the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a nonprofit agency that serves poor people in Framingham. When the COVID-19 stay-at-home advisory began last month, preventing people from coming into the clinic for their therapy sessions, Morley and her staff struggled to keep tabs on their clients.
Many of the clients can’t check in over video chat, because they don’t have broadband Internet at home and can’t go to the libraries where they sometimes get online. Making matters even tougher, Morley said, several people who use the Opportunity Council’s services were reluctant to check in with a therapist in a telephone call. They don’t have landline phones and feared using up too many minutes on their limited cell phone plans, the only ones they could afford. Effectively, Morley said, “They’re off the grid.”
Stories like this remind us that the “digital divide” in the accessibility of telecommunications services remains far too wide — and that current needs give urgency to closing it.
It’s a well-known problem that tens of millions of Americans — the numbers vary widely because the government’s methods of estimation are too crude — don’t have the broadband service required to work and take classes from home or remotely see a doctor. But now we see that previous efforts that supposedly narrowed communication divides, like the low-cost phone programs used by several clients of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, are incommensurate with our new reality. For all the promise that telemedicine and online learning have now, and will have after COVID-19 subsides, those applications remain inaccessible to many of the most vulnerable people among us.
After appeals from lawmakers, public-health agencies, and social-justice organizations in March, several Internet and wireless phone providers responded appropriately, raising or eliminating data caps and voice-minute limits on inexpensive cell phone and Internet plans.
These accommodations go only so far, however. A lack of sufficient Internet access is very likely keeping 12 million students from doing distance learning while their schools are closed, according to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that researches families and the media. And the more that low-income communities are dependent on temporary grace from telecom providers, the more they have to lose when this is all over.
The sudden shift to having so many educational and health services delivered over the phone and Internet “has shown a lot of gaps and holes that exist in the overall system,” said Eboni Winford, a psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., who is director of research and health equity with Cherokee Health Systems, a nonprofit that serves more than 70,000 uninsured or underinsured people. “We can’t just pretend we don’t see those gaps. We’ve got to find a solution that’s ongoing, realistic, and acceptable to the population it serves.”
New ideas are clearly required.
For one thing, while many programs to address the digital divide understandably are focused on extending broadband service to rural places where it doesn’t exist at all, more solutions are also needed for urban areas. Many people who live in neighborhoods where high-speed Internet is available do not subscribe because of the associated costs.
For example, the Pew Research Center found in 2018 that 17 percent of all teenagers had been unable to finish homework assignments because they lacked an appropriate computer or Internet connection. A high-speed connection was lacking in 35 percent of households with school-aged children and an income below $30,000; broadband was absent in just 6 percent of school-aged households with incomes above $75,000. A separate Pew study last year found that a quarter of low-income households relied solely on smartphones to go online. Data caps and small screens on those devices get in the way of many educational and work opportunities.
One answer could be to expand the Lifeline program, which provides subsidies of $9.25 per month for either fixed-line broadband at home or a wireless phone plan. It’s funded by the “universal service” surcharge on monthly phone bills. To be eligible for Lifeline, a household must earn no more than 135 percent of the federal poverty level, or $29,000 for a family of three. But Jon Sallet, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, says that 135 percent cutoff should be higher — as it is for other federal anti-poverty programs — given the increasing importance of broadband for economic development and public health.
Indeed, thinking of communications services as more than ends in themselves opens up creative possibilities. Winford, the psychologist in Knoxville, said it “hurt my heart” when she called a patient with depression only to have the woman lament the limited voice minutes on her Lifeline plan: “I would love to talk to you,” she told Winford, “but I have only about 10 minutes left, so I have to save those.” That got Winford thinking: Now that Medicare and Medicaid have expanded coverage for telehealth services, could those federal insurance programs also cover wireless phone plans with higher caps on voice and data usage?
In North Carolina, the state’s broadband plan covers more than just laying Internet infrastructure in new places. It also aims to meaningfully reduce the “homework gap” for kids who haven’t been able get online at home. Staff in the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office work closely with local educators and libraries to make sure kids have the devices and skills they need to do schoolwork online, said Kathryn de Wit, who manages the broadband research initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
There are surely lessons there for Massachusetts, even though the state has one of the highest broadband adoption rates in the country. About 82 percent of state residents subscribed to fixed-line Internet service fast enough to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband at the end of 2017. The nationwide figure was 60 percent.
Massachusetts and other states also should revisit ways of promoting competition — which could lower prices — in broadband markets. Several hundred municipalities around the country have gone about this by building their own Internet networks, but the practice is blocked or inhibited in 19 states, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a policy research organization. Massachusetts has a mild restriction: State money is allowed to support municipally owned networks only if they don’t compete with ones run by private companies.
For years, broadband researchers found that a sizable percentage of people who didn’t sign up for broadband simply didn’t see enough value in it. But jobs, health care, education, and many other daily needs and opportunities increasingly require fast connections from devices other than smartphones — and the COVID-19 outbreak will probably accelerate these trends. Now we’ll have to work harder not to leave anyone behind.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.