Think Local About the Digital Divide

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A rooftop in the Bronx may point a way to a better internet in the United States.

On a recent Monday, workers bolted an internet antenna — a flat, rectangular-shaped box fitted onto a metal pole — to the side of the rooftop of a Catholic school in the South Bronx. It beams free wireless internet to people who live in the immediate area. About 38 percent of Bronx residents don’t have home internet, even higher than the 29 percent for all of the city.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on America’s pernicious gap between those who can get online and those who can’t because internet lines don’t reach their homes or they can’t afford access or computers — or all of the above.

The Bronx project, led in part by a clean energy start-up called BlocPower and community organizations including South Bronx Churches, is among many that try to tackle this big problem by thinking small. The initiative uses technology that creates improvised internet signals that cover a defined area with relatively little hassle, bureaucracy or cost.

Small-scale internet projects like this are far from perfect. They can struggle for lack of money, technology problems or failures to get residents involved.

But people I’ve spoken to who are pushing for better and more fair online access in the United States say that small-scale internet networks, in combination with savvier government funding and policies, are part of the solution to America’s digital divide. And we might be seeing more of these efforts: New York officials said in July that they planned to redirect taxpayer money from the Police Department to help fund more community internet networks, particularly for residents in public housing.

Donnel Baird, BlocPower’s chief executive, said that he wants to help prove that it doesn’t necessarily cost a fortune for local officials, business executives and community groups to expand internet access in big cities.

“There is no reason people in New York, Detroit and Chicago shouldn’t have internet access,” Baird told me. “This is a totally solvable problem.”

Initiatives like the one in the South Bronx are essentially sophisticated DIY internet projects. Organizations like BlocPower pay fees to gain access to existing internet lines owned by cable or phone companies, and antennas installed on high spots like rooftops pass the internet signals from point to point.

Wireless receivers installed inside residences or commercial buildings carry the signals farther. In these types of systems, typically called mesh internet, each new antenna makes the internet connections for everyone stronger and more reliable.

There are small commercial internet providers that use this or similar technologies, including Monkeybrains in the Bay Area and Brooklyn Fiber in New York, as well as government- or community-run small internet networks, such as the wireless internet network in Coshocton County, Ohio, and The Point in the Bronx.

Small-scale projects aren’t a panacea. Some municipal internet programs have struggled, and Baird and others involved in local internet networks say they can’t succeed unless residents have some ownership and authority over them. The BlocPower network is just getting started, and it’s too soon to tell if it will catch on.

This is not a new problem, nor are politicians’ pledges to do something about it. President Trump and now President-elect Joe Biden have said they want to bring internet service to more Americans.

But the more I’ve spoken to people about this problem, the more I believe the solution won’t be a Big Bang fix but instead a diversity of approaches involving better government funding and less chaotic policies at the federal level, as well as self-interested corporations and local community groups or towns running their own internet networks tailored to their needs. Our colleagues at DealBook have a package of ideas to fix America, and one suggestion was to give every kid a computer.

This year has left me mostly enraged at the state of our internet in America. These conversations have made me hopeful that thinking local could be part of the answer.

My colleague Natasha Singer wrote a great article this week about the strain educators are facing during the pandemic from teaching in the classroom, remotely or in combination, while they and their students are also trying to stay safe and deal with home challenges. It’s a lot.

Natasha also wrote this dispatch about the unintended consequences of students’ technology use that are complicating virtual learning:

One of the most demoralizing aspects of pandemic teaching, educators told me, is not being able to see their remote students.

That is because, in schools that offer privacy choices, many students keep their webcams or audio turned off during live video lessons. Indeed, some students are interacting with their teachers only by typing comments in a chat connected to the video. Many educators say they are now teaching live video lessons to empty screens.

“We often joke that we feel like we’re holding séances on a daily basis,” said Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at a Chicago public high school, “because we’re sitting there going, ‘Is anybody there?!!?’”

Some students turn off their webcams for privacy — they don’t want people peering at their family members or homes. Other students turn off webcams to play games on their phones or text their friends.

But there’s also a deeper issue, said Amanda Kaupp, a psychology teacher at a public high school in St. Louis. Students have developed passive technology habits from constantly consuming entertainment like YouTube and Netflix videos.

Now with remote learning, schools are asking students to instantly develop active relationships with technology, she said, while many digital tools are poorly designed, and students are distracted and stressed out by the pandemic. Kaupp said that 70 percent of students in a recent live lesson admitted they were at that moment also using their phones.

“I have long felt that the obsession with tech in the classroom was an obsession with a false god,” Kaupp said, “and even more so now.”

Also from Natasha is this video of a teacher in Chicago and his wife who dressed up for Halloween to visit students he hadn’t seen in person all year. It’s wonderful. The sign he’s carrying reads: “Trick or Treat. Keep Six Feet. You are the students we love to teach!”

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