As millions have been forced into lockdowns around the world, virtually everything from grocery shopping to work and school moved online. But what if you don’t have any internet access?
A lack of internet would be unimaginable for many, especially those living in sprawling urban centers, but this is indeed the sad reality for at least 16 million Americans lacking access to high-speed internet — or any internet at all.
If this gap in internet access is not urgently addressed, this will only lead to even more socio-economic inequality. Many scholars and human rights organizations now agree that internet access is a basic human right, similarly to the right to health and freedom.
“Internet access is no luxury, but instead a moral human right and everyone should have unmonitored and uncensored access to this global medium – provided free of charge for those unable to afford it,” Dr. Merten Reglitz, a lecturer in global ethics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said during a 2019 statement.
“Without such access, many people lack a meaningful way to influence and hold accountable supranational rule-makers and institutions. These individuals simply don’t have a say in the making of the rules they must obey and which shape their life chances.”
In other words, those lacking internet access are at a decisive disadvantage in life compared to those who have it — and the COVID-19 crisis has only worked to amplify these inequalities.
Almost half of the world’s population has no access to the internet to speak of. Even in developed countries, access to quality broadband such as that offered by ISPs ranked by Cable is likely lower than you might think. In the US, around 6% of the country’s population lacks access to high-speed internet, whereas in Australia this figure hovers at 13%.
And those who have some internet do so at very low download and upload speeds. Poor connections have been exacerbated by the sheer volume of people spending more time online due to the coronavirus crisis, despite internet service providers’ best efforts to improve connectivity.
In a quarantine context, this means that poorer households are locked out of virtual classrooms and miss out on many employment or self-improvement opportunities. A Pew Researcher Center survey released in April 2020 found that 53% of U.S. adults considered the internet as being essential during the pandemic, with another 34% describing it as “important, but not essential”.
In the U.S., closing the broadband gap is predicated on improving policy at the federal, state, and local levels in order to remove roadblocks and improve connectivity in rural and underserved areas. Brad Smith, Microsoft President, wrote in a May blog post that “Congressional action is needed to address the immediate broadband connectivity needs that are having a heightened impact on individuals and communities during the COVID-19 crisis.”
“The COVID-19 virus has created a national crisis. But it has also created an important opportunity. It’s time to galvanize the nation and recognize the obvious. Broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century. Well before the end of the 20th century, we recognized that no American should live without electricity. As we embark on the third decade of the 21st century, every American deserves the opportunity to access broadband,” Smith said.