AARP: Close the digital divide to make sure we’ve all got a way to connect

AARP: Close the digital divide to make sure we’ve all got a way to connect

A message from AARP Alabama

The pandemic has created some serious problems for Alabamians – and drawn attention to some issues that were with us long before the coronavirus arrived. One of the clearest examples involves access to high-speed internet services, also called broadband. 

Well before this public health crisis, we knew that too many Alabamians were on the wrong side of the digital divide. According to U.S. Census data, Alabama was ranked 47th in the country for broadband connections, and almost three-fourths of the state’s residents lacked access to an affordable internet plan. Those without high-speed internet service had difficulty enrolling in a college class, searching for work, or even applying for a job.

But the pandemic underscored the importance of being able to connect, with students taking virtual classes, employees working remotely, and even doctors’ appointments and purely social visits occurring over a computer screen or smart phone. Alabamians without those devices and without internet connections were more isolated than ever. 

We applaud our elected leaders for taking action to narrow that digital divide. At the national level, Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to improve broadband access, and the infrastructure bill under consideration now could add an additional $65 billion toward that goal.

In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars through the state’s Broadband Accessibility Fund to fill gaps in service. And just this year, the Alabama Legislature passed the Connect Alabama Act to facilitate even more high-speed internet expansion.

The importance of building these connections can’t be overstated, especially for our rural communities. Among other things, having high-speed internet access is a key factor in being able to access telehealth services, which became more common during the pandemic thanks to reimbursement reforms enacted by Medicare and private health plans. While the benefits are obvious for those living far away from population centers, telehealth can also be a lifeline for people lacking transportation, living with limited mobility or just trying to limit their exposure to COVID. 

Internet connections can help our state address several critical problems – whether that’s stretching limited healthcare resources or helping employers fill holes in their workforce.

But as important as it is, simply building high-speed internet infrastructure will not close the digital divide. For our residents to enjoy the benefits of expansion, they need access to a computer, smart phone or other device capable of supporting an internet connection; they need affordable internet service; and just as importantly, they need to know how to use it. 

Organizations receiving public funds to expand access have a responsibility to help ensure that citizens can afford internet service and know how to use it. They should work with community groups – AARP Alabama is eager to help – to explore ways to make internet service more affordable and accessible, and to help individuals gain digital skills. Otherwise, we as a state will not reap the best return on our investment. 

The digital divide didn’t begin with COVID. But the pandemic provided stark evidence of the importance of internet access and digital literacy for succeeding and thriving in today’s world. If we want our residents to flourish – and if we want our state to flourish – we must make high-speed internet services more available, affordable and accessible to all.

Alabama is still looking for areas where improvement is needed. Alabamians can help the state locate gaps in high-speed internet service by taking the speed survey at https://alabama.speedsurvey.org/.