Another Obstacle to Success: Wi-Fi Disparity

Wi-Fi Disparity BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of axios.com

There have long been gaps in the standard of living among American households: access to quality education, healthcare, housing, food, and clothes.

Usually, these lifestyle differences are divided along racial, economic, and class lines. But since the Coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of Americans into their homes, another kind of pervasive inequality has been highlighted: WiFi disparity. 

The fallout from the stay-at-home orders that swept the nation in March served as a wake-up call to teachers and school administrators, who were shocked to learn that many students especially students of color and lower-income households had no access to WiFi in their homes. 

“[Students’] phones may be old and not able to run sophisticated software,” college professor Catherine Denial told The Washington Post. “They have low data plans. They don’t always have good access to WiFi, and places they could go to get good access to WiFi are places they’re told to avoid.”

The crisis that leaders and lawmakers have on their hands goes by many different names. Some experts call it the “digital divide,” others call it the “homework gap.” Whatever name it goes by, this phenomenon isn’t a new one, even if the mainstream knowledge of its existence is. 

Back in 2015, the Pew Center of Research published its findings, revealing that 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have access to high-speed internet. As usual, these statistics are direr among Latino and Black families.

But COVID-19 has highlighted this problem even more starkly. Students are no longer able to rely on public WiFi providers — like schools, libraries, and coffee shops to assist them in attending class Zoom calls, studying, researching, and finishing their assignments. 

As the “digital divide” becomes more pronounced, lawmakers and school administrators are scrambling to close a gap that could have long-term repercussions on students. Schools in New York City, for example, have offered their students internet-enabled remote learning devices. Lawmakers fortified the Lifeline program, which provides monthly subsidies for broadband internet access to low-income Americans. 

But many critics are calling these solutions a temporary band-aid on a larger, structural problem. “Mobile hotspots, WiFi on school buses where they’re parked in parking lots — these are all temporary solutions,” Kathryn de Wit, manager of the Broadband Research Initiative, recently told CNN. “That residential connectivity problem, it’s going to take time to solve. So we need to be having that conversation now.”

The prevalence of WiFi disparity has had some Americans discussing the possibility of classifying WiFi as a public utility. This “universal right” resource would join the ranks of other public utilities like clean drinking water, paved roads, and universal public education.

“Broadband access to the Internet should be an American right not a privilege,” Villanova University Professor of Business Technology Steve Andriole recently wrote in Forbes. “[It] is extremely important right now when millions of Americans cannot access the Internet to go to school, talk to their doctors, or order food.”

Whatever the solution is, the problem is both clear and urgent: in a country where universal public education is considered a right, many students are getting shafted because their socio-economic statuses prevent them from accessing the internet freely and easily. And for this problem, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.