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Regional Matters

March 25, 2021

COVID-19 Remote Learning Exposes the Digital Divide

District Dialogues

The Richmond Fed is hosting a six-part series on racial and economic disparities in education and COVID-19. Visit the District Dialogues webpage to learn more and to register.

Most Schooling During the COVID-19 Pandemic Requires Remote Learning

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many K-12 schools turned to remote learning to educate their students while safeguarding public health. According to an online survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in October 2020, of the 495 school district leaders, 85 percent said their school districts pursued remote learning — either in full or complemented with in-person instruction. For students with adequate digital resources at home, such as a computer and broadband internet subscription, remote learning enabled them to continue to learn, albeit as an imperfect substitute for in-person instruction. However, for the 5.4 million children under 18 years old in the United States without access to a computer or broadband internet subscription, at-home remote learning was a challenge. Some of these students relied on Wi-Fi access in school parking lots or public libraries.

A RAND Corporation study of data from the American Instructional Resources Survey of educators in May and June 2020 found that access to internet at home increased the likelihood of completing assignments on time. Even when the internet is available at home, the quality of the connection matters, too, as does the number of devices available for schoolwork. One study found that a higher speed connection and a greater number of devices was associated with higher levels of student engagement — measured by parents’ assessment of how much their children enjoy remote learning and complete assignments and how many times they logged on to remote learning sessions per week.

Access to Remote Learning Varies by Income and Geography

What determines if students have access to digital resources at home? Income and geography are two important drivers. Even if low-income households have broadband service available in their area, affordability can be a significant challenge. Basic broadband service meeting the minimum Federal Communications Commission (FCC) speed standard (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload) typically costs between $50 to $70 per month, making it expensive for low-income households. Research from BroadbandNow found that in 2019, 45 percent of Americans lacked access to a low-priced broadband internet service plan — defined as “plans with prices less than or equal to the 20th percentile of all qualifying broadband plan prices within a given technology.”

The chart below uses the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to show the share of households by income without a broadband internet subscription for the United States and states within the Federal Reserve’s Fifth District. The lowest-income households are least likely to have a broadband internet subscription at home: Percentages range between about 33 percent in Maryland to nearly 41 percent in South Carolina. Middle-income and high-income households are more likely to have a broadband internet subscription at home.

Low-Income Households Are Less Likely to Have an Internet Subscription

In addition to affordability, geography matters. Households in rural areas might not have broadband service in their area. Rural areas have a perfect storm of conditions that make it costly for providers to build infrastructure, such as low population density, greater distance to existing infrastructure, and sometimes difficult terrain. The next chart (below) shows the share of children under the age of 18 without access to digital resources at home — defined as access to a computer and a broadband internet subscription — by rural and urban residents. Nationally, there is nearly a 5 percentage point gap in access to digital resources at home between rural and urban children. Among states in the Fifth District, North Carolina has the largest rural-urban gap in access to digital resources at home: Seven percentage points.

Children in Rural Areas Are Less Likely to Have Digital Resources at Home

New Solutions to the Digital Divide

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked renewed efforts to address the digital divide. In response to the affordability challenge, Congress provided $3.2 billion for a broadband service subsidy. The FCC Emergency Broadband Benefit provides a discount up to $50 per month toward broadband service and up to $75 per month for households on tribal lands. Prior to the pandemic, the FCC offered a lesser broadband subsidy (up to $9.25 per month) under the Lifeline program, but only about one-third of eligible families used the program. The increased broadband subsidy will provide an opportunity to entice more families to purchase a broadband subscription and gauge the impacts on access to remote learning for students.

Building out new infrastructure to address the rural-urban digital divide will likely take significant investments over a lengthy period. However, a new technology may provide an immediate answer for students in rural households out of the reach of existing providers. In Southwest Virginia, Wise County has become one of the first counties in the nation to try SpaceX’s Starlink low-earth orbit satellite (LEOS) internet service. The test pilot has provided free internet service to about 40 families in early 2021 with plans to ultimately serve an additional 90 families. Traditionally, satellite broadband service is provided by satellites orbiting the earth about 22,000 miles above the equator. The lengthy distance contributes to slower internet service. Starlink and potential new competitors use satellites orbiting at about 350 miles above the earth, thereby reducing latency. Starlink has launched about 1,000 satellites so far with approval from the FCC to launch 12,000 satellites.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore how the digital divide can impact student learning. Given the trend toward more remote learning, more attention needs to be brought to bear on solutions to address the digital divide so that a lack of digital resources no longer exacerbates existing differences in access to learning and economic opportunity. A new federal broadband subsidy and Starlink’s technology in beta are two examples of new approaches to addressing the digital divide.

Interested in reading more articles like this one? Check out Our Regional Focus, where you can find additional research and analysis on broadband access, regional differences, and other pressing economic issues that affect our communities.

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