Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Digital Divide?
The digital divide is the gap that exists between people in those communities who have access to high-speed broadband (HSBB), computers, mobile devices, and those who do not.
Who is affected by the digital divide?
The digital divide exists everywhere in this country, but it is especially pronounced in underserved urban and rural low-income communities where individuals face multiple obstacles.
The digital divide is not new. However, the global pandemic widened the existing divide and intensified its impacts. At the height of the pandemic, we were forced to increase our reliance on the internet and home use of our computers and mobile devices. This accentuated the digital divide for many: from school children who lost nearly a year of education, to parents required to work from home, and others – particularly seniors – who had to access services like healthcare online.
Now that the pandemic restrictions are lifting, won’t things right themselves?
No. Right now, households lacking digital access and devices will continue to be cut off from these opportunities to engage in the modern economy. This includes how we work, learn, access healthcare and financial information.
Won’t installing new infrastructure solve the issue?
No. Infrastructure is one aspect of the problem – other components include service and device affordability, connection quality, digital literacy and technical support. To solve the digital divide, the obstacles our communities face must be holistically addressed.
So, what’s the next step?
Solutions and support must be created in response to the specific environments and realities that individuals and families live in and face. Providing internet to an underserved neighborhood, for example, does not help those households within that neighborhood that do not have a computer or lack the know-how to use it.
What about the St. Louis region?
Nearly half of all households in St. Louis City and County are affected by at least one aspect of the digital divide.
How did this report come about?
During the pandemic, the full detrimental impact of the digital divide became very apparent. We knew we had to come together to address the challenge and do so boldly and innovatively.
Who sponsored the report?
The report was commissioned by the St. Louis Community Foundation and the Regional Business Council (RBC) and prepared by the Center for Civic Research and Innovation (CCRI) and accounting firm EY (Ernst & Young). Additional funders included the Boniface Foundation, Missouri Foundation for Health, NISA Charitable Fund, St. Louis Public Schools Foundation, St. Louis Regional Response Fund, and The Opportunity Trust.
Why was the report commissioned?
The report was commissioned to better understand the scope and what drives the divide. Only then can we develop a framework to address it.
What does the report say about the St. Louis region?
According to the report, a combination of factors in the areas of service coverage, quality, and affordability, along with the cost of devices and the availability of technical support are limiting broadband accessibility and usage.
Tell me more about service coverage and quality…
Between 250,000 to 300,000 households in St. Louis City and County lack access to fiber internet services, likely the long-term, future-proof solution. Service upgrades are also needed, particularly in the most economically disadvantaged regions where upload and download speeds appear inadequate.
How many homes in St. Louis do not have internet?
Approximately 150,000 households in St. Louis City and County struggle to afford HSBB. The challenge is particularly acute in St. Louis City and North County given the high proportion of low-income households.
What about device availability in these communities?
Approximately 90,000 households in the City and County are unable to afford adequate devices; 25 percent of households in the City do not have a computer or only have a smartphone.
How does digital literacy fit into all of this and why should we worry about?
Students and their families, along with an estimated 100,000 adults — particularly seniors — need some form of digital literacy and tech support. The report found that public libraries and local community organizations are likely best suited to coordinate such initiatives.
Why not just make sure every home has high-speed broadband service?
Because it is only one component of the digital divide. Poverty further complicates and often contributes to multiple aspects of the divide. We can’t be sure that a household lacking in service isn’t also lacking a computer to use it. To that end, solutions and support must be crafted in response to the specific environments and realities individuals and families face.
Why the emphasis on education?
All students deserve an equitable opportunity to thrive. We have long known of the inequities that plague the education system in our region. How we address the digital divide in the next five years will determine whether technology will serve as a revolutionary solution that brings thousands of students into a modern world of opportunity or exacerbate existing inequalities. Our 21st century workforce and economy depend on a wired workforce. We need to invest in the workforce of the future now.
Why can’t this education just occur at school?
School district do not operate in “silos.” For those families that do not have the devices or resources to help their children learn at home, libraries, youth clubs, and churches might need to serve as an alternative site to access the technology, and where tutoring on technology can be provided on a consistent basis.
So, how do we bridge the gap in the St. Louis region?
Our civic, business and philanthropic entities must come together with our Federal, State and local government to develop an approach that addresses service and device affordability, contend with coverage and quality gaps within the region’s technical infrastructure, and provide digital training and support for many.
To what end?
Regardless of where they live or their socio-economic status, all workers should enjoy greater flexibility and expanded employment opportunities. All students should be able to access enrichment opportunities and online materials. All St. Louisans should experience the benefits of health care, social services and financial services that are available to those with access to devices and digital skills.
How much do you think it will cost to close the digital divide in the St. Louis region?
It’s too soon to put a final price tag on this effort before we have solid plans in place. This report is a critical first step to addressing the long-standing issue, to serve as a resource and ultimately, a call to action. Our next step is to continue to pull together stakeholders to develop the approaches that will ultimately equip our neighbors with the tools and knowledge needed to thrive in a wired world.
Can you give an example of some aspects of the issue that are already being addressed?
St. Louis County Library, for example, is in the midst of a multiyear capital improvement campaign called “Your Library Renewed.” The updates and enhanced programming are being funded almost entirely by the library system’s share of local property taxes, including a voter approved $0.06 property tax increase in 2012.
In addition, $4 million in federal CARES Act funding was designated to the St. Louis County Library to establish a Digital Equity Initiative to help students continue learning virtually. The funds are used to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, virtual tutoring and Chromebooks to students and school districts.
How long will it take to create a solution?
To effectively address each of the elements, a multiyear and multifaceted approach will be needed. This report is a start — a foundational document to give us an understanding of what barriers do indeed exist. Collaboration and leadership across all sectors – civic, philanthropic and business – will be crucial as we work together to create and invest in systemic solutions within our communities. Our region’s economic vitality depends on it.
Can you name some regions and/or cities that have “solved” the digital divide problem?
No. St. Louis is not unique in its struggle to address the digital divide — no one region is dealing with the same systemic issues, even if the symptoms of the divide are the same.
The pandemic accentuated the issues caused by the digital divide nationally, and has brought the issue to the forefront of all regions and, certainly, there are innovative solutions developing that can guide us, but it is also important to craft solutions that address the specific issues here in St. Louis.