The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems that have persisted in American communities for years, and the metro area is not immune to these realities. Amid public health crises and other pandemic-related challenges, the so-called digital divide widened, emphasizing the disparity between people who can easily access the internet and those who can’t.
“Connecting to the Internet is as important as electricity and water in today’s world,” said Eric Button, associate director of systems at the St. Louis County Library.
For the past two years or more, SLCL has partnered with a variety of local organizations to bridge the gap for people across the greater metropolitan area, Button says. In the summer of 2020, the library system received funding from the county government as a partner in its Digital Equity Initiative, which provided 10,000 hotspots, 6,000 Google Chromebook laptops, and virtual tutoring for needy local students.
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In March 2021, SLCL provided 1,500 GrandPad tablets to help underserved older adults access technology and stay connected with loved ones during the pandemic. A second round (1,500 more tablets) is due to be distributed this month to people who have completed an application. In addition, the library improved its own facilities to better serve its personal visitors.
“The library’s Wi-Fi network has been improved both inside and outside the buildings during the pandemic,” says Button. “The network is now accessible 24/7 and people can access it outside of the building even when the library is closed. SLCL has also purchased and installed Cradlepoint routers on some bookmobiles to create Wi-Fi networks as we serve the community.”
The St. Louis Community Foundation released a report earlier this year that found that “nearly half of all homes in St. Louis City and County are affected by some aspect of the digital divide and will require investment to provide adequate long-term connectivity.” ensure”. The Foundation and the Regional Business Council commissioned this report, prepared by the Center for Civic Research and Innovation and global accounting firm Ernst & Young.
Its findings, drawn from research conducted throughout 2021 and into 2022, imply that efforts like the one SLCL has implemented are essential – but that more needs to be done.
Findings show that “the digital divide is best understood by examining and addressing five key components,” including coverage, quality, affordability of services, affordability of devices, and digital literacy or mentoring. The report points out that all of these factors can affect a person’s or family’s connectivity. Amelia Bond, the foundation’s president and CEO, says that households’ lack of access to internet-connected devices is a significant barrier.
“It’s affecting everything from children’s learning to seniors’ access to health care to the workforce,” says Bond. “Right now, if you don’t have access to the internet, you won’t find a job. The more components of those five you touch, the bigger the gap.”
The data shows that nearly 55 percent of the population in St. Louis and St. Louis County are “substantially affected” by two or more of these barriers. Likewise, affordability of services affects between 70 and 75 percent of people in the metro area.
“To be honest, it’s a poverty problem,” Bond adds. “Where we have poverty, all these problems affect them.”
The federal government also recognizes the split. In 2021, Congress passed a $1 trillion infrastructure package that allocated $14.2 billion to the Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes internet services for low-income households. The foundation hopes to secure some of this funding — as well as other grant money, tech industry partnerships, and independent funding — to implement the next phase of its plan. The foundation plans to use the data collected in Phase 1 to connect disparate groups, create plans and roadmaps to solve the problem, and implement those ideas in the greater area.
“It’s a huge problem in our time,” says Bond. “The pandemic has provided us with unprecedented means to address this issue. There is a lot of federal funding available now that we want to make sure we bring as much to our area as possible.”
St. Louis County Library, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, 314-994-3300, slcl.org
St. Louis Community Foundation, 2 Oak Knoll Park, St. Louis, 314-588-8200, stlgives.org