Person sits at a table scrolling through the internet on a propped up Ipad next to their coffee cup.

The digital divide

The COVID-19 pandemic shed a glaring light on the important role that technology and access to high-speed internet play our lives. You would not be able to read this story without an internet connection and a device to read it on. How would you communicate with loved ones, do your homework or pay your bills without broadband?

Cynthia K. Sanders, associate professor and online program director in the College of Social Work, is the lead author of an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work that argues access to high-speed internet, or broadband, is a human rights and social justice issue. Lack of access disproportionately impacts low-income, People of Color, seniors, Native Americans and rural residents. Sanders joined the University of Utah in July 2021.

“Much of my work is around financial, social or political inclusion,” said Sanders. “The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion because there are so many things associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and opportunities, especially highlighted by the pandemic. It creates a clear social exclusion situation.”

At least 20 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Some estimates are as high as 162 million, said Sanders. While there are federal funds allocated toward addressing access to broadband internet, Sanders and her co-author, Edward Scanlon from the University of Kansas, argue the digital divide must be viewed as more than a policy or infrastructure issue.

“When we know that the people who don’t have it are already disadvantaged in many ways, it should also be viewed as a human rights and social justice issue,” said Sanders. “And it’s also about more than just whether broadband is available in certain areas. Even if it is available, not everyone can afford it or devices available to access it. If they do have the devices or can pay for it, they may not have the digital literacy skillset to effectively use technology and broadband for many of the opportunities it provides like applying for jobs, furthering one’s education, accessing health care or medical records and staying in touch with friends and family.”

In order to reduce the digital divide, Sanders said there are community-based, grassroots initiatives that can serve as excellent models—including one here in Utah.

“The Murray School District used some federal funds to create their own long-term evolution network (LTE) and that’s something no other district in the nation has done,” said Sanders. “It’s a great example and something we can learn from in the absence of a more national strategy.”

The authors also urge social workers to get involved through policy advocacy, coalition building and program development around initiatives such as low-cost broadband, low-cost devices and creating digital literacy programs.

“From a social work perspective, we need to be part of this discussion around ways to help close the digital divide for particularly marginalized groups,” said Sanders. “We can be involved in lobbying and working with legislators and policymakers to educate about the digital divide, who it impacts and the funding needed for some of these grassroots initiatives that can truly impact peoples’ daily lives.”

Media Contacts

Morgan Aguilarcommunications specialist, University of Utah Communications