Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part one: 

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for a digital divide that has long disadvantaged low-income, Black and Latino, and rural households.* As Americans lose access to public internet sources at schools, libraries and businesses, those who most need the internet to access school and get the unemployment and SNAP resources they need to meet basic needs are getting hit hardest. 

With the expiration of CARES Act benefits, historic rates of joblessness, eviction moratoriums ending, continued spikes in COVID-19 cases, months of learning lost for students (especially low-income students), and the expiration of a voluntary FCC program that kept internet companies from cutting service to those who missed bills during the pandemic, the worst may be yet to come. 

In cities and towns across the country, millions are relying on parking-lot WiFi, according to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. South Bend, Indiana, has sent WiFi-equipped buses around the city to sites that students can access. Similarly, San Antonio is setting up WiFi stations with over 100 feet range. And, a Nyack, New York, Library Director who set up parking lot WiFi service told Consumer Reports, “This library had been a place where kids without computers or access to broadband could do homework, but we now also have members of the public trying to do other things, such as file for unemployment or fill out census forms.”

The digital divide has long hurt Black, Hispanic, limited education and low-income, and tribal and rural households. While 79 percent of white households have broadband internet, only 66 percent of Black households and 61 percent of Hispanic households do. Native Americans, especially those who live on reservations, are sharply affected by the digital divide. Only two in three Native Americans have home broadband, according to a 2018 report from the Census Bureau. And only 52 percent of Native Americans who live on tribal land have a home broadband subscription. 

This disparity also falls along income. Over 9 in 10 households that make over $75,000 a year have home broadband, compared with only 56 percent of households that make under $30,000 a year.

Many Americans rely on smartphones as their only way of getting online. Black and Hispanic adults use smartphones at similar rates to white adults (about 8 in 10 adults), but 23 percent of Black adults and 25 percent of Hispanic adults are smartphone-only users, which means that they access the internet through their smartphone but do not have home broadband, compared to only 12 percent of whites. And one in five rural adults are smartphone-only internet users, compared to 17 percent of urban and 13 percent of suburban adults. About half of smartphone-only internet users report running out of data and they are far more likely to cancel or suspend their service due to financial constraint than people with at-home internet. 

According to a Pew survey from early April, at the beginning of stay at home orders and remote learning, about one in five households with children at home reported that it was at least somewhat likely that their children would not be able to do their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home (21 percent) or because they rely on public WiFi for lack of stable internet at home (22 percent). 

This group of students who now lack internet access is disproportionately low income and Black. In 2018, 21 percent of Black teens reported using “public Wi-Fi to do schoolwork due to a lack of home internet connection,” compared with 11 percent of whites. And of teens whose families make less than $30,000 a year, 21 percent rely on public wi-fi to do homework compared to just 7 percent of those in households that make at least $75,000 a year, according to Pew. In California, the State Board of Education found that about 20 percent of students could not access the internet at home. 

As a result, many families reported worrying that their children would not be able to do their school work for lack of internet access during school closures and stay-at-home orders. Twenty-nine percent of parents report that it’s “at least somewhat likely their children will have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone.” And, many are worried about paying their internet bills: three in ten smartphone users are worried about paying for their smartphone service and 28 percent of at-home-broadband users are also worried about making payments. Hispanic adults are particularly concerned about paying their internet bills during the COVID-19 pandemic–54 percent of Hispanic broadband users reported being worried about paying their bill, compared with 36 percent of Black broadband subscribers and 21 percent of whites. 

The shift to remote education has had devastating impacts on many low-income and Black and Latino students. One study found that only 60 percent of low-income students regularly logged onto online classes, compared with 90 percent of high income students. Another study found that just 60 to 70 percent of Latino students logged on regularly to their online classes this spring. 

As remote learning and continued economic distress continue into the fall, the digital divide represents a national crisis that denies millions access to education, the benefits they need, job opportunities, and online legal help.


*Though lack of broadband is only one facet of the digital divide, it is a big part of the problem. According to the FCC’s 2018 numbers, 18 million Americans lived in an area without broadband, but BroadbandNow estimates that number at close to 42 million Americans. 

Helpful resources:

This is part of a three-part blog series on the digital divide. To read part two, click here