With the digital divide threatening to become a communications canyon, a report commissioned by the St. Louis Community Foundation and Regional Business Council (RBC) concludes the region must take immediate action to reduce the gap.
According to the St. Louis Digital Divide study, “the region must address service and device affordability, coverage and quality gaps within its technical infrastructure, and provide digital training and support for many.”
Prepared by the Center for Civic Research and the accounting firm Ernst & Young, the study shows that poverty plays a role in nearly half of St. Louis and St. Louis County households face at least one digital divide aspect.
Reducing that number “will require investment to ensure adequate long-term connectivity,” the report states.
“What was once considered primarily an issue of urban and rural divide has significant impact on urban and suburban families in our region.”
“We have known for more than a decade there is an incredibly serious divide between those who have digital access and the technical knowledge to use it, and those who do not,” Kathy Osborn, Regional Business Council president and CEO, said in a release.
“The pandemic highlighted how serious the problem is not only for school children who lost nearly a year of education, but also for parents required to work from home, and others — particularly seniors, who had to access services like healthcare online.”
Sharonda Hardin, University City School District superintendent, said the digital divide will grow wider for students, especially those in underserved communities, without action.
“We know that economics and race make a big difference, the digital divide is exacerbated by these factors. COVID magnified the problem because on in-home learning. Even if you give a child a (computer), if the home does not have adequate (internet) service there is a problem,” Hardin told the St. Louis American.
The study features five components of the digital divide:
Coverage: Fiber internet is currently the best available way to ensure a “future-proof” connection. Between 250,000 to 300,000 households in the city and county would require an upgrade. Fiber internet availability is limited in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the region.
Quality: Coverage and (high-speed broad band) quality exists in St. Louis. Sizeable portions of the study area exhibit low levels of competitive intensity. Speed test results imply widespread broadband service deficiencies on a more local basis.
Service Affordability: Approximately 150,000 households in the city and county struggle to afford high-speed broad band service. The problem is acute in the city and North County because of the number low-income households.
Device Affordability: A quarter of city households do not have a computer, or only have a smartphone. In some north city neighborhoods, the rate tops 30 percent. Approximately 90,000 city and county households cannot afford adequate devices.
Mentoring: Students, families, and an estimated 100,000 adults need some form of digital literacy or mentorship engagement. Challenges are more common among older individuals. A Pew survey indicates that around 60 percent of individuals aged 75 or older have low tech readiness.
The “vast majority” of city and county residents face at least one of these five components, the study concludes.
Low-income areas (households with an average income of $35,000 and below) often face three or more barriers. Almost 55 percent of the population live in areas meaningfully impacted by two or more digital divide pillars.
“The response to these challenges will take an even more concentrated effort from organizations, politicians, schools and businesses,” Hardin said.
“We have to prioritize who needs the most, it will take a cohesive effort.”
The report estimates investments needed to shrink the digital divide:
• A $200 to $300 million one-time infrastructure investment.
• An annual $45 to $50 million investment in household broadband service subsidies.
• A $20 to $30 million initial investment in device costs.
Options that could help finance the investments include The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides funding to address connectivity, affordability, and literacy challenges. Missouri will receive approximately $681 million to invest in broadband for underserved communities. Another $51 million is available to help fund digital literacy mentoring and create opportunities for the to address underserved populations and bridge affordability and literacy gaps.
In addition, The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) of 2020 and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) include initiatives addressing connectivity and affordability. Missouri has committed to deploying $400 million in ARPA funds for broadband initiatives.
In closing, the report states, “This assessment positions St. Louis to act efficiently and effectively. It allows us to understand the breadth and depth of the digital divide and establishes the necessary framework to catapult St. Louis as a national leader in digital equity.”