WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —During the pandemic, the internet is more important than ever. From streaming meetings and classes, to virtual worship and telehealth appointments, to ordering groceries and scheduling COVID tests, internet access can be like a lifesaver. literally. It’s a lifeline that hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers lack.
A new report by Roberto Gallardo, director of Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development, calls attention to the point where hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people in Indiana don’t have access to a reliable Internet reliable at at least 25 megabits per second. The biggest problem, he notes, is that no one fully understands the scope of the problem.
Estimates of how many Hoosiers do not have broadband internet range from 261,000 to 4.1 million. That huge difference is because different agencies report different estimates of the data. To address the issue, Gallardo explains in the report, stakeholders, scientists and policymakers first need access to reliable numbers, which they currently lack.
Digital inclusion includes the availability, accessibility, and reliability of high-speed internet and digital devices. The gap between those who have easy, reliable, fast internet access and those who don’t is the “digital gap”.
Gallardo has been studying the digital divide for over a decade. His previous studies have highlighted the importance of broadband access, even before the pandemic hit. Children and adults without reliable internet access are at a distinct disadvantage.
“COVID-19 has posed a decades-old problem of the digital divide,” Gallardo said. “As individuals, organizations and businesses race to work remotely, conduct business online or learn online, the issue of the digital divide becomes very apparent. With COVID, broadband has become a hot topic.”
Gallardo’s previous studies have worked to determine the depth and breadth of the digital divide in Indiana, but such research has been difficult to conduct due to the lack of clear, cohesive data. Various organizations, including the Federal Communications Commission and Microsoft, track Internet usage and speed by location. However, that data is usually at least two years out of date; The most recent publicly available data for researchers is from 2019.
The data that exists varies widely depending on the source. For example, the Federal Communications Commission found that about 261,000 residents did not have access to the minimum internet speed standards: 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. However, Microsoft found that 4.1 million residents were not using the Internet at a speed of at least 25 Mbps — a significant portion of Indiana’s population of more than 6.7 million.
“Right now, we have too many conflicting data sources,” Gallardo said. “We need better data to gauge what digital inclusion looks like in Indiana as a whole. Without that data, we cannot solve the problem. We need to raise awareness and ensure that funding and data are available to everyone who needs them.”
The people on the ground agreed. Amanda Baird and her family moved from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, to a farm in small rural Tipton County two years ago.
“We were stunned,” Baird said. “People here talk about how bad the internet is in the countryside, but I don’t understand. I thought, ‘Oh, it can’t be that bad.’ But my fastest internet speed is now slower than my slowest internet speed in Carmel. It’s so bad. It’s a big problem in rural communities.”
Rural communities are not the only ones affected. Urban communities struggle with various issues that prevent many residents from reliably accessing the internet.
Both Gallardo and Baird noted that many steps have been taken and some progress has been made, in the form of Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s Emergency Education Relief grant, the Next Level Broadband Grant. and other initiatives, including Purdue County Extension offices providing WIFI and lists of accessible hotspots during the pandemic.
The Gallardo report makes five specific recommendations for making Indiana a digitally inclusive state. He suggested collecting more data on broadband availability, revising funding eligibility criteria to ensure funding is available to those in need, continuing to support devices and connections. students, raise awareness of digital exclusion and its implications, and encourage communities and regions to plan for digital inclusion improvement.
About Purdue University
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