Posted by: bluesyemre | August 9, 2021

How the #Pandemic made the #DigitalDivide impossible to ignore

This fall, if we’re fortunate, most Canadian schools, public buildings and offices will be returning in person indefinitely. There will be a wide array of mixed feelings. To some, this is accompanied by a lot of anxiety; to others, it’s a tremendous relief. Yet, there will be a silent layer that will not bounce back quickly, if at all. Not because they’ve realized an alternative that better suits their lifestyle, but because they became too far lost when they lost connection to the Internet. Many citizens depend on their library, school, and perhaps even their wifi at the office to keep them informed and connected. They may depend on these resources completely or as a supplement. Either way, they do not have the broadband access needed to thrive or even survive today.

The shelter-in-place orders issued across Canada due to the outbreak of COVID-19 moved most of the country to at home working and learning. This shift was accompanied by the assumption that everyone was set up to continue to live their lives remotely. In March 2020, many vulnerable citizens were abruptly cut off from their sole source of digital access when schools and libraries closed their doors. In the 2020s, no connectivity also means no ability to meaningfully participate in education, the economy, the health care system and no ability to connect with loved ones and social supports. Schools scrambled to provide loanable technology to their students. Public libraries moved their wifi routers to the windows to create a stronger signal for those in the parking lots to attempt to soften the blow. However, these band-aid efforts to equip individuals with devices and access were not enough. We were not prepared, as a society, to bridge the need for digital access.

This was not a new struggle; many already existed on the wrong side of the digital divide. The shutdown merely exasperated the struggle. Unfortunately, we see many of these individuals every day in public libraries. The term digital divide was coined in the 1990s during the rapid rise of Internet access. It described the divide between those who had access to digital information and communication and those who did not. Public libraries strove to bridge this gap, as they have always provided citizens with the resources they need for a better life. For example, libraries rearranged furniture and books in the 1990s to accommodate more computers for those who could either not afford to get online with AOL at home or didn’t live in an area serviced by high-speed Internet.

A 2001 report called The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Success was drafted by a task force that consisted of public and private leaders across the country, including CEOs of telecommunications giants. The publication outlined how critical the need to build a connected Canada, with equal, seamless access to high-speed Internet, was to the country’s future. The report outlines the need for connectivity for healthcare, education, economic opportunity and social connection, framing digital access to be precisely what it is: a fundamental human right. The report also highlights the communities and groups that would be most disadvantaged if not connected by 2004. These included those separated by income, who cannot afford the technology to connect; by geography, such as the many rural and First Nations Reserves without the infrastructure; and by age, like those not born in a digital age and who may have been left behind with the rapid digital evolution. Sadly, this effort to build awareness and understanding went unheard by policymakers following its publication.

Twenty years later, the dream is, unfortunately, still a distant wish. As libraries reopened with restrictions in 2020 and 2021 — depending on the province — one of our core prerogatives, if not THE prerogative, was to get people connected as soon as possible. Leaders struggled for hours in meetings to develop the best possible solution to provide spaced-out computer access safely. We heartbreakingly had to space out devices, allowing for fewer seats, and provide time limitations on usage. If we were lucky enough to receive a grant, we could provide loanable devices and hotspots for users to take home. However, it was still not enough.

Today, not only is information technology usage rapidly evolving, but the digital divide is also no longer a simplistic division between the technology “haves” and “have-nots.”

The pivot to working and learning from home in 2020 proved the digital divide is not a simple issue but a complex policy and infrastructure crisis. The digital divide in Canada has been exasperated to the point where one policy paper from Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy dubs the divide to now be a “Tectonic Shift,” creating new fault lines and variables to measure the divide. The paper outlined how even households with adequate Internet access and a few devices struggled. Family members competed for broadband and screens to keep up with the new demands and assumptions that a family’s entire life could exist via non-stop online chats, zoom calls and streaming.

The challenge once resided with those who did not have access to high-speed broadband or a device. It became more widespread and nuanced as many workplaces and education went online. The digital divide widened, and now those with access found that their access was insufficient to carry on in a post-COVID world. This suggests Canada could be moving further away from “networking the nation” and towards a myriad of connectivity challenges and deficits impacting more households. These households have been struggling through this for sixteen months. If their employers decide to continue with remote work, or if there’s ever another shelter-in-place crisis, they will continue to struggle unless significant policy and social changes.

Based on the most current policy and public funding efforts, the policy issue is still being approached as a simplistic technology one. The CRTC’s Broadband fund to bring faster LTE to rural communities is happening much too late and too slowly. As stated, we now live with a much more nuanced, complex, and widespread divide, which won’t be resolved with increased broadband and LTE additions. The grassroots efforts — driven mainly by libraries, schools and community organizations, are gallant but not sustainable solutions. Library Internet access should be used as a bridge, a supplemental community resource to help our community members as they need it. A long-term, sustainable solution is much bigger than loanable hotspots, devices, and a wifi connection is needed.

Solutions need to go beyond just the physical provision of Internet broadband: though it’s a start, they need to be more social, educational and cultural. Along with the technical gap, there is also a social and community gap. A Harvard Business Review article outlines that inclusiveness needs to accompany this infrastructure. Access needs to be accessible and affordable. There also needs to be mindfulness from the public sector and industry leadership. The rise of working from home and distance education, combined with the demands for digital citizenship, will require devices and access and digital literacy and shifts in social expectations. Citizens will need the resources to access the Internet and the skills to engage in an effective, healthy, and sustainable manner. As a society, we also need to adjust our expectations of students, employees, and citizens and their capacity to be online.

As life is slowly easing back into a “normal” and the pressures of at-home sharing of devices and broad-band lighten and those without a connection are gradually reunited with access, we as a collective need to remember the social and infrastructure issues that bubbled to the surface over the past year and a half. A gap that was left unnoticed for nearly 20 years continued to crack, widen and deepen. Almost every element of participating in society has moved online, assuming that seamless, constant and immediate access to the high-speed Internet is as plentiful and democratized as it is not. Even vaccine bookings in Ontario were made solely online, leaving those without access or the knowledge of navigating the system completely in the dark. A society built on the concept of seamless access for all without foundation has become a house of cards, teetering and on the verge of collapse from any shift or change. Today, access and utilization of high-speed Internet is not just an equalizer but a lifeline.

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