When Daria Smith moved to South Seattle, she wasn’t planning to get the internet any time soon. It’s expensive, and she had other, more pressing bills to pay.
But her priorities shifted after the Auburn School District sent her son and daughter, ages 14 and 13, home in the middle of March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She tried to sign up for a free or reduced-cost internet plan through CenturyLink, a special she thought her family qualified for. Smith waited for hours on hold to ask about their deals, but never received a clear answer. After more than a month without internet and worried her kids would fall behind in school, she caved and signed up for a $70 a month plan in early April.
“I would have waited,” Smith said. “I was trying to bring down bills and stuff.”
She signed up for the service after she received her first paycheck from Amazon. To support her family, she has become a front-line worker, grocery shopping for other people at the Whole Foods in North Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood. On a 10-hour shift, she gets two 10-minute breaks to check in with her kids via text: “Did you log on to school today?”
As people are encouraged to shelter in place, it has placed a greater reliance on technology in the home. But working, learning and connecting with friends remotely requires households to meet a digital threshold. For many low-income families, seniors and immigrants, such connection is a luxury that comes at too high a cost.
School and library closures in mid-March eliminated access to free computers and the internet many people relied on, bringing to light digital inequities that have always existed. The pandemic has spurred organizations, major tech companies and school districts to contribute some computers and tech support to people in need. Some transit systems are even using buses to create drive-in, public Wi-Fi hotspots.
But closing the long-held digital gap isn’t as simple as handing out computers: It requires reliable internet, adequate devices and digital literacy skills in order to take advantage of the technology, researchers say. And to do that now, during a global pandemic, would be an incredibly large feat.
“It seems simple at first,” said Laura Robinson, an associate professor at Santa Clara University whose research examines digital inequities. “Let’s just get everybody what they need and let’s just go. But it’s horrifically complicated.”
Even in the greater Seattle region — one of the country’s leading technology hubs — a significant digital divide persists, particularly for low-income families. Households earning $25,000 or lower in Seattle have the lowest internet access rates, with 21% of households reporting a lack of internet access, according to a 2018 technology study by the city.
A breakdown of internet access in Seattle
For Seattle, income level is the greatest determining factor when it comes to internet in the home.
The divide is even more pronounced across the state: In Washington, 15% of households lacked internet subscriptions, according to U.S. Census data from 2013-2017, the most recent available. But for families in Washington earning $20,000 or less a year, the percentage of those without access was almost 40%.
“This isn’t about cat videos on YouTube anymore,” said Lloyd Levine, senior policy fellow at the University of California-Riverside, who studies the digital divide. “The internet is an essential, integral part of civic life in America in 2020. People who don’t have access to the internet at home suffer demonstrable educational and economic harms.”
Meanwhile, 24,041 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Washington, according to a Monday update from the Washington State Department of Health, and 1,161 people have died from the disease. The state’s newest numbers represent an additional two deaths and 312 cases compared to the day before.
Adapting to a pandemic
After the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Seattle Public Library classroom used by Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the organization knew it had to get computers into students’ homes if there was any hope of continuing their English as a Second Language classes.
Volunteers got to work, dropping off loaner computers and even helping to sign up students through Seattle Public Library for free Wi-Fi hotspots. But the new equipment brought a host of accompanying hurdles for families, like connecting to the internet.
“For most of them, this is the first time getting the internet,” said Getu Hunde, program coordinator at ACRS.
Hunde helped one student over an hourlong WhatsApp video call get connected to Wi-Fi and then on Zoom, so she could attend classes. Another case manager drove to students’ homes and stood on their porches to talk them through connecting to the internet from a safe distance.
“Even speaking the same language, it’s still a problem,” Hunde said.
English as a second language speakers are more likely to lack internet than native English speakers, according to city data. Living without computers or the internet is a reality for many Beacon Hill International Elementary School students from immigrant families.
When the school closed due to the novel coronavirus, first-grade teacher Nisha Daniel found about half of her 51 students lacked the resources they needed to do school work remotely.
Their families are “struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads; the internet and a computer is the last thing on the list,” she said.
As the economic ramifications from the pandemic worsen, more families could be out of work and with less expendable income to pay for devices or cover internet costs. Washington’s unemployment rate rose from 5.1% in March to 15.4% in April, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department.
Who has internet access?
Across Washington, large disparities in broadband access still exist.
Using laptops provided by Amazon and secondhand computer donations, Daniel was able to find computers for her students. The PTAs are working with internet companies and lobbying landlords to get the students Wi-Fi.
In the meantime, Daniel calls her students without internet access through their parents’ phones to ensure they received the weekly lesson plan, and helps them practice their English pronunciation by reading stories over WhatsApp video chat.
“It’s so unfair, because the kids who need intervention and help are the ones who don’t have the internet,” Daniel said.
Locally, Amazon donated 8,200 Chromebook laptops to elementary-age Seattle Public School students throughout April and early May. As of May 27, an additional 5,313 devices and 367 Wi-Fi hotspots have been distributed to SPS students, according to SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson.
In May, a free, tech-support phone line was created to support SPS families with their new devices. So far, the call center has answered 309 tickets and is being staffed by more than 100 volunteers, many of whom work in the tech industry, said Nick Merriam, whose organization sea.citi is overseeing the service.
Still, there remains a lot of ground to cover to ensure every Seattle Public Schools student has access to reliable internet and adequate devices in the home.
“For kids, let’s just say they fall behind in math or in STEM,” said Robinson, “this period where they are losing out on their education could be a stumbling block that has lifelong implications for their educational trajectories and life chances.”
Outside the city
Many of the private sector’s efforts have focused on closing the urban divide, but there are still rural areas of Washington, including in King County, that lack access to reliable, high-speed internet.
Alex Audretsch bought his house outside of Redmond because he wanted to live somewhere quiet.
But he didn’t know moving to a less dense place would mean sacrificing his connectivity. In order to do his software developer job from home, Audretsch had to purchase a second phone plan from Verizon. The family plan consists of five Wi-Fi hotspots, totaling 75 gigabytes of high-speed data a month, which he said he always maxes out.
“I’m grateful I can afford enough hotspots to have the internet I need to do my job,” Audretsch said. “This event reveals how tenuous our connection with infrastructure can be.”
Over 21 million Americans, most of whom live in rural areas, lack access to reliable broadband internet, according to a 2019 Federal Communications Commission report. Washington state ranks 16th in the nation when it comes to broadband access, which covers nearly 95% of the state, according to data by BroadbandNow, a national policy organization focused on broadband expansion.
In recent months, public-private partnerships have emerged to address the digital gap during the pandemic. For instance, Microsoft and the Avista Foundation are funding a recently launched effort between the state and tech organizations, to create more than 300 new drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Washington. The free parking-lot hotspots are mostly located at Washington State University Extension campuses and at libraries.
But Devin Glaser, broadband advocate and executive director of Upgrade Seattle, said expecting families and students to work from their cars is a failure of the system.
He described “the cruelty of a world where we say, ‘You can’t go outside because you’ll get sick and you can’t go to a library because you’ll get sick, but you also need internet and we can’t provide it to you.’”
Navigating a digital world
Auburn resident Diane Knutson, 61, never needed the internet until she found an eviction notice taped to her front door in February. New management took over her building in November and planned to raise the rent by $600, Knutson said. She needs to find a new home by the end of June, but “I don’t have the internet to find a place,” Knutson said over her landline phone.
Seven years ago, Knutson and her husband drove around Auburn looking for rent signs until they found the place where she currently lives. Knutson is no longer able to drive due to mobility issues, and she doesn’t have a co-pilot after her husband died a few years ago.
Now, Knutson lives alone without a computer or internet. She has a cellphone that she reserves for emergencies, although she prefers her landline.
“If I had someone to teach me how to use [the internet], I absolutely would use it,” Knutson said. Without it, she’s uncertain how she’ll find a new home.
Knutson isn’t alone. The state’s shelter-in-place order has inspired more people to set up internet connection in their homes, said low-income housing providers.
“I think there’s also some populations that are being missed when it comes to accessibility with devices,” said Joanna Endo, who works in a low-income housing unit run by Bellwether Housing in Seattle.
Barriers to access
Here are the most common reasons Seattle residents cited for not having or using the internet.
Mercy Housing Northwest, an affordable housing provider, saw more than 300 new requests from residents wishing to get laptops or tablets in their home for the first time. Many senior residents would access their email from the library, or visit their building’s community rooms to use computers, providers said. But those places have been closed for several months now. Some of her senior residents have started walking to libraries so that they can sit outside and log on to the internet, Endo said.
Low-income housing providers also find themselves helping their clients navigate internet costs. Many of Endo’s residents lack a credit card or debit card to set up an internet contract.
Some residents have old bill delinquencies following them, like Melodie Clarke who lives in a senior community in Sea-Tac. Living on a fixed income, Clarke struggled to pay off a $296 debt she owed to Comcast. Recently, the $1,200 CARES stimulus check finally helped her pay the bill and get low-cost internet, so she can continue attending her art classes from home.
In March, Comcast announced new customers of the Internet Essentials program — a less than $10 a month broadband internet service for low-income households — would receive the first two months free when signing up through June 30. Launched in 2011, the program has connected more than 340,000 Washington residents, including more than 132,000 people in King County, said the company’s Regional Senior Vice President of Washington, Rodrigo Lopez.
But some critics say private internet companies limit access for the poor, by throttling internet speeds, requiring yearlong contracts, and limiting the number of devices online at one time.
“They don’t really have an equity lens,” Glaser said.
Since 2015, Glaser’s organization, Upgrade Seattle, has advocated that Seattle join the more than 300 cities around the country that have switched to municipal broadband, in which cities pay for the expansion of broadband infrastructure in order to provide it to every resident’s home. The service is then operated by the city, costs are controlled, just like electricity or water. Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen announced a new resolution in May to encourage the city to start “charting the course for universal internet access in Seattle.”
Levine, the senior policy fellow at UC-Riverside, hopes the pandemic’s revelation of digital inequities shows broadband internet can no longer be treated as a luxury in our society, but rather as a public utility.
“The reason we’re concerned about the digital divide is not because of the digital divide in and of itself, but because it fosters other divides,” Levine said. “It fosters educational divides and economic divides and health outcome divides.”