“People say cliché statements like, ‘The youth of today are the future of tomorrow,’ all the time but unless we do something about the digital divide now, this persistent educational gap will continue growing exponentially, leading to an immense financial and opportunity gap for generations of Americans.”
These words, written by high school sophomore Shriya Garg from Rome, GA, are particularly poignant today as the nation begins the slow process of digging out from under the worst global pandemic in 100 years. The “digital divide” she refers to is the lack of broadband internet connectivity that plagues millions of students in the U.S. today. Most K-12 schools have broadband on site, but when students go home, too many are unable to complete assignments, do homework, conduct research, or attend virtual classrooms because they do not have a reliable or affordable broadband connection. This is known collectively as the homework gap.
Recognizing inequity in her community
While not a new issue for those in education, when Ms. Garg found out about it in 2019, she was shocked. One event in particular made it all too real.
“One day a tornado hit our city of Rome leading to power outages all over,” she said. “It created a lot of difficulties accessing Wi-Fi so when teachers began to push out homework for those without Wi-Fi, I realized the magnitude of the problem.”
According to the Pew Research Center, “Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6% of such households earning $75,000 or more a year.” This disparity has only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to shutter, leaving millions of families without reliable sources of income. “Digital inequities can affect every student given its magnitude,” said Dr. Iris Garner, T-Mobile’s South Region Education Advisor. “When students don’t have connectivity, it reduces their opportunities for peer-to-peer student collaboration, which impacts student achievement, engagement, and motivation to succeed.”
To put this into perspective, the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report states “The vast majority of Americans—surpassing 85%—now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, a 47% increase since 2017.” However, according to research by Microsoft, the problem is actually much more acute—with almost 163 million people in the U.S. “not using the internet at broadband speeds.” That’s nearly half the U.S. population.
Bottom line, what matters to Ms. Garg is too many K-12 students are being left behind by their lack of broadband access. Even in the face of a global pandemic, she got to work.
Persevering to put empathy into action
While Ms. Garg couldn’t go house to house to connect all of the students in her district personally, she resolved to bridge this information access gap for her peers. She contacted her school’s leadership to propose eight alternatives, including putting Wi-Fi on buses and parking them in places where students could access them, installing Wi-Fi at local community centers and churches, extending the school day so students could stay after and study, or setting up Wi-Fi around the city.
Some of these ideas faced significant logistical roadblocks while others, like opening up community centers and providing a list of locations around the city where students could access free Wi-Fi, were hit or miss. Wi-Fi at these locations was not always fast or reliable. Some local businesses like Panera Bread or Starbucks had fast Wi-Fi but many students lacked transportation to get to and from these locations in more affluent areas. Ms. Garg also reached out to several businesses, newspapers, and philanthropic organizations but received few responses.
“After emailing about 20 organizations without a response, I felt discouraged,” she said. “I decided to email one last company, T-Mobile, after seeing an advertisement about closing the homework gap.”
Forging partnerships with a strong shared vision
Ms. Garg knew that Rome City Schools had been working with T-Mobile, among other technology companies, earlier on in the pandemic to offer greater off-campus connectivity to students. Through T-Mobile’s EmpowerED 2.0 program, the school district acquired 200 cellular Wi-Fi hotspots, deploying 75% of them in the first week alone.
But to Ms. Garg’s surprise, T-Mobile also responded to her email about a shared passion for bridging the digital divide.
Student advocacy is a powerful tool that allows those who have a voice to support and promote those who may not have yet found their voice. Ms. Garg’s ability to connect with her peers, empathize with their challenges, and follow through on an action plan demonstrates the power of student initiative and leadership. By choosing to focus on digital equity, Ms. Garg has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of her peers—and not just today. She is opening doors to opportunities that would not exist without connectivity and impacting students well beyond her reach.
With equitable broadband connectivity, innovation can become a team sport
Even as schools slowly return to full-time on-site instruction, Ms. Garg believes that virtual learning in one form or another is here to stay. And with the pace of innovation accelerating with technologies like 5G, there is immense opportunity to build a new narrative and more equitable awareness in academia, as well as expand educational and employment opportunities for marginalized students. But this also makes bridging the digital divide even more important going forward.
“If we can fix the problem of the digital divide, the possibilities for students and school administrators are endless,” she said. “This is definitely a life-long mission worth fighting for.”
One of the most important lessons Ms. Garg took away is that bridging the digital divide isn’t a straightforward problem to solve. It requires a strategic approach to funding, planning, and deploying broadband accessibility with buy-in from many different groups dedicated to finding solutions. On the bright side, however, she also discovered that a lot of people, organizations, and governments at every level are aware of the problem and many are working hard to solve it.
“People have to realize that this is not an isolated problem that just affects individual families or communities that may be of low income,” she said. “As far as businesses and other community organizations, they need to recognize these students are future leaders. By investing in education, they will only increase the strength of the community and bring more business innovation, jobs, and advancements to the local communities.”