Chm Blog Guest Blog

Hotspots and Have-Nots: Revisiting the Digital Divide

By Mike Cassidy | September 29, 2020

To find the site of my digital divide awakening, head to Steamboat, Arizona. Take a right off the main highway, down a rutted dirt road and drive eight miles to the two-bedroom trailer where Myra Nez grew up.

Nez is the Navajo woman who as a 13-year-old won an Apple iMac in 2000. The Silicon Valley tech-company giveaway became a front-page story that I wrote when it turned out that Myra had the computer named for its internet-readiness but had no way to connect it to the internet. Her home had no phone service and no running water.

The San Jose Mercury News coverage didn’t go unnoticed by the White House and President Bill Clinton added the Navajo Nation to his digital divide tour. He invited Myra to introduce him before a speech to thousands on the vast reservation—which she did.

I’ve been thinking about Myra again and the way she symbolized the digital divide 20 years ago as November’s presidential election approaches. She’ll always be associated with that presidential visit—the first to the Navajo Nation by a US president. Clinton was a once-impeached, second-term, president who had lied to the American people. When Myra introduced him, he was focused on his legacy, which he hoped would include expanding access to the internet for the poor and residents of remote areas.

This year we have a once-impeached president who often lies to the American people and who is singularly focused on his reelection. His legacy may well already be set with the death of more than 200,000 Americans and counting from COVID-19.

But with this election Donald Trump and Joe Biden each have an opportunity to add narrowing the digital divide to their legacies. Whoever wins in November will oversee an economy gasping for life. They will face staggering unemployment numbers and a nation relying on remote work and remote schooling to a significant extent—all of which could be helped by more equitable access to technology.

The next president will also lead a country with a digital divide that has narrowed only slightly since that day Clinton stood on an outdoor stage at the Boys & Girls Club of Shiprock, New Mexico, and said:

I am here because I believe the new technologies like the internet and wireless communications can have an enormous positive impact in the Navajo Nation. They can be a vehicle for job growth, for education, for health care, for employment opportunities. They can be the greatest equalizers our society has ever known.

— President Bill Clinton

Is the digital divide really worth worrying about in 2020?

You might think that in a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and a country roiled by its confrontation with systemic racism and a renewed focus on the crisis of police violence against Black Americans, that the digital divide would be among the least of our worries.

But in many ways, the divide is just another symptom of the inequalities exposed by both COVID-19 and police misconduct and the protests against it. COVID, in fact, has underscored the difference between the technology haves and the technology have-nots. All schools are struggling, but those in affluent areas have been able to launch distance learning with a consumer base of tech-savvy digital natives.

Those in communities that are struggling financially have had to raid budgets and turn to philanthropy to get Chromebooks and hotspots to children whose parents and caregivers don’t have jobs that allow them to work from home. And they can’t afford not to work, sometimes multiple jobs.

And that’s another fault line. Low-income workers are disproportionately represented by people of color. They are service workers and members of the gig economy. They don’t have the luxury that well-paid knowledge workers have: the ability to go to work by plugging in their laptops in the spare bedroom.

And in part because of that, people of color—Blacks, Latinx, Asian Americans, and Native Americans—are getting sick at a far higher rate and dying in numbers far beyond what their proportion of the population would indicate.

Practically speaking, it’s unlikely the digital divide will be a topic of conversation, political advertisements, debating points, or sound bites as we approach November 3.

But honestly, with the 2020 election now just weeks away, we can’t afford to ignore the disparities in access to the technology tools of the 21st century. Progress by politicians and governments on the digital divide has been abysmal. Neither major candidate at the top of the ticket has laid out a clear plan to tackle it, though both have pledged to improve rural broadband.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has indicated he will restore net neutrality, one factor cited in driving up the cost of connectivity for households and a policy that President Donald Trump does not support. Biden has also drawn up plans that would be friendly to local governments that want to provide broadband services.

Presidential solutions to tech inequities remain fuzzy

Both candidates have promised to spend billions shoring up broadband access, particularly in rural areas, but analysts have characterized the plans as fuzzy and Congress has not supported Trump’s efforts so far.

Closing the divide will take more than the president and so as you head to the polls soon, consider the positions and policies of senators, Congress members, state legislators, school board members, mayors, commissioners, and council members.

There is plenty of work to do. Myra Nez, 34, who was introduced to the world as 13-year-old Myra Jodie, lives on the Navajo Reservation with her three kids, ages 7 to 12, not far from her childhood home where her mother still lives.

Nez and I hadn’t spoken since her high school graduation. I reached out to her for a sense of how things had changed on the Navajo Reservation since that day 20 years ago when Clinton spoke to the Navajo Nation.

“Our phone service is really crappy,” Nez said of the service at her mother’s home, provided by a satellite firm that stepped up about a year after Myra won her computer. “We still have Globalstar. That works when it wants to work. We don’t have internet with them anymore.”

The coronavirus has not been kind to the reservation, which at its peak had an infection rate worse than any state in the United States.

“The Navajo reservation was hit hard,” Nez said in September when we spoke. “I think they finally got it under control. Because there were no new cases as of this week, which is good.”

Medical experts pointed to the fact that 60 percent of the homes on the reservation have no running water as a contributing factor to the virus’ spread. It’s also common for extended families, spanning generations, to live together and the reservation has a history of poor health care, which Navajo Nation politicians attribute to the US government reneging on treaty obligations. And the stresses associated with poverty no doubt have played a role. The per capita annual income on the reservation is just under $11,000, about one-third of what it is across the United States.

Homes with phones have doubled on the Navajo reservation, but . . .

When Clinton spoke on the reservation, about 80 percent of the homes had no phone service. Today, according to the Navajo Times, the figure is probably closer to 40 percent. That compares to 3.3 percent of phoneless homes in the United States as a whole. The figure for internet penetration on the reservation is similar—40 percent says the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Nez recently moved her family to a rental home near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona, to be closer to her job as a work management administrator at the utility authority. She said her family has internet access, but it’s hardly blazing fast.

“It’s been working. But, of course, with everyone being on the internet now, they’re slowing down the service,” she said. “There is lag time, disconnections. The improvement is there but it’s not like we’re living in the city, where we have the best internet.”

Still, it’s better than what passes for internet access in Steamboat, where the school district has taken to dispatching school buses with hot spots on board. Students who live without internet connections, and often beyond phone service, are encouraged to travel to the main roads where buses are parked. 

“It’s only during school hours, which would mean kids would have to have parents or grandparents take them to the bus stop and have them access these connection points,” Nez said. “In the fall, with the weather, once it gets muddy or snowy, who is going to take them to the highway? I don’t know how that is going to work.”

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated all kinds of simmering trends—the digital divide among them—and these fissures extend far beyond the Navajo Nation.

Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, working with the Boston Consulting Group, determined this summer that 15 to 16 million students do not have access to the necessary tech tools to attend school remotely. That’s about 30 percent of all students. Equipping those families with adequate devices and necessary broadband would cost as much as $12 billion in the first year of work to correct.

The digital divide is intertwined with a raft of inequities

And the thing is, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that not only is the digital divide worth worrying about in the time of COVID and racial divisions, it is inextricably linked to both those major challenges.

COVID, of course, has made the digital divide all the more obvious, particularly to those, myself included, who do not suffer from its inequity. It’s made it all the more obvious that the digital divide only exacerbates the inequalities that have been there all along.

It is not news that the world runs on technology. It’s how humans find jobs, buy goods, connect with each other, enjoy entertainment and understand the world—including the issues informing the coming election. And it is now how millions of children and young adults go to school.

Yet for a significantly large part of the US population, that reality doesn’t exist. That Common Sense Media study found that 9 million students have neither a digital device appropriate for learning nor an internet connection. Another 5 to 6 million have a device, but no broadband. And about 1 million have broadband, but no device.

And, no, the pain is not equally distributed by race and ethnicity. Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group found that Black, Latinx, and Native American households are far more likely to be without broadband than White households. In fact, nationwide 35 percent of Native American homes, 30 percent of Black households, and 26 percent of Latinx homes lack internet access. For White households, the figure is 18 percent.

The key reason those without adequate internet access gave for not having the service was cost, with 34 percent of those with children telling the Census Bureau that finances were a factor. Despite the cost of broadband service, Common Sense Media concluded: “High-speed internet connection at home is not a luxury. It is as essential as electricity and running water to be fully engaged in American society and to ensure equal opportunity at desired educational, economic, health, public safety, and social outcomes.”

Perhaps what’s most amazing about Common Sense’s figures is that such numbers still exist. Am I the only one who thought the digital divide must be a solved problem by now? How long have we been talking about this? About as long as the commercial internet has been around.

Myra Nez sees progress from the past and a brighter future

And now it almost seems the digital divide has been frozen in time on the Navajo Reservation in early 2020. But Nez points out that things have changed.

“My youngest son has a tablet and a phone in his hand that he can access the internet through,” she says.

And looking ahead at the election, she’s heartened by the inclusion of Senator Kamala Harris on the ballot as the first woman of color to be the vice-presidential nominee of a major party. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that makes me hopeful that we’ll move forward,” she said.

I mentioned the columns I wrote about her winning the iMac and introducing Clinton to the Navajo Nation. They described her as an excellent student and a student athlete and a member of the school band. I ended the column I wrote the day she introduced Clinton with a future fantasy, inspired by the memory of a young Bill Clinton’s long-ago meeting President John F. Kennedy at the White House. I wrote:

“Who's to say if the life of a politician is what's right for Myra? It should be said, she looked awfully good standing behind that presidential seal.

She'll be eligible to run in 2024.”

Myra Nez laughed at the memory.

“That’s probably not happening,” she said.

I still say we could do a lot worse.

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COVER IMAGE: Photo by Gary Reyes for the (San Jose) Mercury News, April 17, 2000.

About The Author

Mike is lead storyteller at Signifyd, a Silicon Valley commerce protection company. He’s a former journalist who covered the distinctive culture of Silicon Valley for The Mercury News of San Jose.

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