The School Newspaper of Cherry Hill High School East


The School Newspaper of Cherry Hill High School East


The School Newspaper of Cherry Hill High School East


The digital divide: how availability and accessibility of Wi-Fi impact socioeconomic disparities

Courtesy of Dropbox Blog
As technology advances, the digital divide becomes more apparent than ever.

Wi-Fi. Many of us take it for granted every day. A New York Times notification, submitting homework on Google Classroom without delay, texting to catch up with a friend. When we consider the driving propellers that bring daily life forward, Wi-Fi is clearly a frontrunner. Yet, what happens when some of us are disconnected? A gap emerges: namely, the digital divide.

One key factor that contributes to this divide relates to present-day disparities in the accessibility of Wi-Fi. Professor Jim Brown, Director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden, explains how despite the importance of Wi-Fi to daily civic engagement, appropriate steps have not been taken to make its benefits available to everyone.

“Having access to the Internet is a utility in the same way that [electricity and water] are utilities. We haven’t treated it that way as a country.” Brown said. 

The roots of this are traced back to the historical patterns of how infrastructures were built. In the 19th century in the United States, cities were typically seen as a modern infrastructural ideal. They enabled public access to utilities like water systems and eventually electricity so that if you lived in a city everyone could share those resources. However, Wi-Fi did not follow the same pattern.

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“If the Internet comes along at a time when that’s the political culture, then you are not going to understand it as a public utility, as a collective resource, you are going to understand it as, look if you work hard enough and get enough money, you get access to it,” Brown said. 

This mentality led to incongruities in terms of Wi-Fi access: Who has to make an effort to be connected? Who has to jump through hoops and who doesn’t? The answers manifested themselves in an emerging gap between the connected and the disconnected.

Many of these imbalances were revealed during the pandemic, specifically concerning virtual learning. Some students would go to Starbucks parking lots and try to connect to the Wi-Fi to do their basic schoolwork– demonstrating that students in public school, who are supposed to have the same access to educational materials as everyone else but have limited access to Wi-Fi, are at a clear disadvantage.

Ms. Gabriella Sanzari, an AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) teacher at Cherry Hill High School East touches on how she has noticed these divides during her teaching experiences. Before moving to the Cherry Hill school district, she worked in a different district where many of the students were disadvantaged. During COVID-19, she became more aware of the inequities that arose due to remote learning.

“I was put in the position where some of the kids right away were able to log in and complete their assignments and then some other students didn’t have a device at home– they didn’t have access to Wi-Fi. So that was one of the things where it was really clear to me to see just in the situation of all the virtual learning,” Sanzari said. “Specifically for computer science, you are expecting them to have that access outside of class if they are working on a piece of a program. Our platform for CSP is web-based so they need access to the Internet to be able to access their programs.”

As schools returned in-person, many of the assignments became digital as well, making it difficult for people without access to appropriate digital technology to complete them efficiently. Wi-Fi has become rooted in our educational system, and without access to it, students, like many during the pandemic, may have to go to places with free access. Yet while these public options might be available, access to transportation can further contribute to the divide. Without transportation availability, people are otherwise removed from these locations, hurting students from more rural areas. These divides are seen outside of the classroom too for activities like online summer supplemental programs, tutoring, meetings and conferences. 

“When you arrive at each level of education, with different skills and backgrounds, somebody already has a leg up because they went to Cherry Hill instead of some other school district…What’s going on is access to education and resources, but those sorts of inequities get made worse at each step,” Brown said– a sentiment Sanzari echoed and also recalled witnessing in her experiences at her old and new districts.

These types of inequities largely mirror other problems like housing segregation, the racial wealth gap, and the socioeconomic divide– which are all further exacerbated by the digital divide. For instance, during the pandemic when internet service was cut due to financial troubles for many, Black and Hispanic/Latinx adults were two times more likely to experience those difficulties than those identifying as White according to the Pew Research Center.

Additionally, for people in rural and tribal areas, where there might be fewer customers, the lack of investment in technological infrastructure makes these places disconnected from the world’s digital network. While government funding has begun to pick up in these areas with new initiatives like the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, divides still remain that are reliant on more of an investment to begin to fix this disconnection. 

“You can’t build the same way you can in a city. And the way that has worked historically has always been government funding,” Brown said. 

With these types of inequities, it makes it difficult for people with less access to digital technologies and a broadband internet connection to find the same opportunities as those who do, resulting in additional career gaps. For professional growth, Wi-Fi is essential to completing more professional development such as with online courses and job application platforms like Indeed and ZipRecruiter. 

One study by Deloitte, a professional services networking company, shows that if there was 10% more broadband access in 2014, there would have been 875,000 more jobs in the United States in 2019. More so, following the pandemic, as many companies transition to remote work, having access to Wi-Fi is more important than ever. 

These sentiments also extend to community development where digital spaces bring various professional and social groups together. Without access to these groups, people begin to get excluded from learning from diverse voices. Educating oneself in general, and gaining access to the plethora of resources online such as Massive Open Online Courses and podcasts is made more difficult. Even educating oneself on different political candidates and having the chance to become more politically active and informed on digital spaces is targeted.

The challenges of a technologically modernizing world coupled with groups that don’t have access to those very technologies are also prevalent in the healthcare industry. For instance, gaps that already exist due to health inequality are worsened by limited access to Wi-Fi. Due to the rise of telehealth, not having access to the Internet makes one further removed from healthcare access and worsens inequities that are already present due to income inequality. 

While these inequities do exist, Sanzari explains how there has been a new effort to integrate teachings about these types of inequities into her teaching curriculum. 

“We actually teach about the digital divide in AP CSP…they address inequities [and] social justice issues that have to do with technology so the students actually research what areas are impacted by the digital divide and get to learn a little bit about it,” Sanzari said.

When considering the importance of Wi-Fi in today’s day and age and the juxtaposition of the gaps in access to it, there is a need for solutions. Brown explains that the ideal solution would be public investment in new internet infrastructure. Yet, despite the appeal it might not be realistic.

“That’s a difficult thing to imagine at this point because it would require massive front-end investment by those municipalities. Think about the millions of dollars that would need to be spent…how would it be funded?” Brown said.

Yet, the collective public effort might offer hope. Brown explains that in cities like Philadelphia, public wireless projects are beginning to take hold. Groups of people collectively build wireless networks by putting infrastructure on top of apartment buildings so there’s a free Wi-Fi network to have access to– all donor-driven.

It is easy to take the things that we rely on every day – without a second thought – for granted. Now imagine they were gone: water, electricity, Wi-Fi. This is the reality for millions. It’s time we allow everyone to connect, and close the gap of inequality.

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About the Contributor
Gia Gupta, Eastside Editor-In-Chief
Gia, a Print Editor-In-Chief, loves stargazing, asking questions to strangers, and wandering in bookstores. Some of her favorite things include The Marginalian, handwritten letters, and interactive art museums. But in the end, like she wrote in that one Eastside article, she simply is.

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