Vikram Ravi: Coronavirus exposes Utah’s digital divide

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Fourth grade students at Legacy Preparatory Academy in North Salt Lake work in the computer lab on writing assignments. Charter schools are funded through a complex blend of state and local dollars that puts charters at odds with traditional district schools. As charter schools have grown, lawmakers are reexamining the state's funding formulas.

As Utahns are preparing and embracing social distancing, self-quarantines and potential widespread lockdowns, many transitions have involved technology, working from home, virtual medical consultations, taking online classes and using social media for critical updates.

What has not yet been answered is, what will Utah residents without the internet do?

One in seven Utah households does not have an internet subscription. These individuals are increasingly vulnerable without the digital access needed to navigate a public health crisis.

Those without the internet include the state’s most vulnerable, including senior, rural, refugee, homeless, Native American and other low-income communities. During this pandemic, many in these communities are not familiar with telehealth services and lack needed digital literacy skills to comfortably navigate an app or website for receiving medical assistance. They may have lower levels of media literacy skills needed to stay informed with timely and correct information shared by government and health officials.

This presents a threat given how fast inaccurate or false information can be spread through instant messaging and social media. Simply stated, we can’t fully address emergency preparedness without addressing both digital access and skills.

Additionally, these are the same unconnected communities who are already at risk during this pandemic. This includes low-income working parents, who have less telecommuting options, and their children, who may not have adequate access to home internet and computers to participate in online learning platforms. While these issues and those of other at-risk groups are not new, the outbreak of COVID-19 will reveal gaps in the digital divide that have been long overlooked.

There remains a need for stronger leadership and proactive coordination from the state and tech and telecom companies to adequately address this issue. A bill introduced in the Utah Legislature in the recent session, House Bill 385, sought to create a state office to provide strategy development, resources and public-private partnerships to improve digital participation in telehealth, digital government and other priority areas. The bill was held in Legislature to allow additional study and collaboration by public and private stakeholders this coming year.

Still, governments, businesses, schools and community organizations must act now and better prepare for ensuing emergencies. These unconnected communities cannot be ignored. They represent our family, friends, classmates, students, clients, coworkers and neighbors.

As most of the institutional efforts during the outbreak have focused on ensuring internet and device access, a commensurate effort is needed to ensure vulnerable communities have the capacity and skills to participate in a digital democracy, economy and society.

If you know someone that is at risk of becoming more isolated and lacks the digital access or skills to navigate this pandemic, reach out and see how you can help. Sometimes it’s as simple as patiently explaining an app that will make their life easier or asking if they need help finding an affordable device or internet.

In the wake of this pandemic, let’s begin by not taking our own digital participation for granted. Perhaps then, we can better see the need to support those around us.

Vikram Ravi

Vikram Ravi is a graduate student at Brigham Young University and digital inclusion advocate in Utah.