As more people gain access to COVID-19 vaccinations, we are looking at a post-pandemic life that will look quite different than pre-pandemic. As the lasting tragedy and economic devastation caused by the pandemic continues, this moment also presents an opportunity to mindfully address long-standing socioeconomic and equity issues that have been laid bare. Among these issues is access to broadband internet. Prior to the pandemic, internet access was already a utility rather than a luxury. With the virtual shift of so many aspects of our day-to-day lives—from video calls with grandparents to well-child visits to participating in educational activities—internet access has become essential for children and families.
Many Oregonians remain under-served in terms of broadband access
For families without access to high-quality internet at home, this has often meant dealing with a slow or choppy connection, or relying on phone hotspots with limited data. Before the pandemic, this was referred to as the “homework gap”, but in a world of distance learning it affects more than just homework; a child’s ability to learn is deeply impacted when they are unable to attend virtual classes or complete schoolwork. And the already-present educational access gap affecting many children from lower-income, rural, and BIPOC communities has consequently intensified. According to data from the U.S. Census’ Household Pulse Survey collected between October 28th and December 21st, 2020, nationwide 88% of households with children usually or always had internet and a computer or digital device available to children for educational purposes. In Oregon, while 93% of all households with children reported access, access varied between the different racial and ethnic groups surveyed.
Households in which internet and a computer or digital device are usually or always available to children for educational purposes by Race/Ethnicity (percent)—November 25-December 21, 2020
Source: Annie E. Casey KIDS COUNT Data Center
Note: Oregon data for Asian and Black/African American respondents are suppressed due to limited sample size and/or confidence intervals
Location and cost contribute to access barriers
Many families living in rural areas of the state are underserved when it comes to broadband access. Rural areas are less densely populated than urban ones, and are often overlooked by internet service providers as building the necessary cable infrastructure to support high-speed internet is not cost-effective. When it comes to broadband access, the urban-rural divide is apparent. Ninety-five percent (95%) of the state’s population is concentrated in urban areas with basic broadband access, however only 54% of all census blocks in Oregon have this access. The clear difference is also seen in subscribership where just over 5 in 8 (64%) urban residents subscribe to broadband compared to 4 in 10 (42%) rural residents.
Another major barrier to accessing broadband, regardless of physical location, is cost. In Oregon, only one-quarter (25%) of residents have access to low-priced broadband plans ($60 or less per a month), meaning broadband for many families is simply not affordable.
Additionally, these barriers in accessing broadband, both location and cost, compound one another. When less people are paying for broadband in a given area, each individual subscriber ends up paying more to support the required infrastructure, and this equates to higher costs for those living in less densely populated areas. In Oregon, residents in the least densely populated zip codes (the bottom 10%) on average pay 37% more for services than residents in the most densely populated zip codes (top 10%). Across Oregon’s federally-recognized Tribes, nearly 1 in 5 (18%) tribal members had no access to wired broadband and 64% did not have access to low-priced wired broadband; access levels varied widely among tribal communities.
Pathways to potential
When we resource communities around the state with access to affordable, high-quality broadband internet, we not only increase vital internet access but also provide pathways: for children to reach their full educational potential, for families to have the ability to access health and work resources, and for all Oregonians to connect and strengthen relationships with loved ones regardless of location.
The issue of broadband access will continue to impact children and their families as Oregon and the world re-open. Solutions must focus on addressing the disparities in access uncovered by the pandemic; disparities which disproportionately impact BIPOC children, those living in rural areas, and families with lower-incomes. Now is the time to create and implement long-term solutions that will improve affordable broadband access and make strides towards closing the digital divide, which can help us begin to address the underlying systemic racism and classism that drive it.
View part 2 of this blog series which explores current legislative policy and technology initiatives positioned to improve broadband access and affordability. Learn how we, as community members and advocates, can support access to this vital utility for our neighbors across the state.