One out of every five households in Essex County does not have a computer or access to an internet connection, a “digital divide” that has been unmasked by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report.

The study, commissioned by the Essex County Community Foundation, found that the lack of online access is most prevalent among low-income and Latino families. The problem has been intensified by the pandemic, when critical services such as education and health care are relying more on the digital world to reach people.

“Now, just may be our best opportunity to address the digital divide in Essex Country,” said Stratton Lloyd of the Essex County Community Foundation during a Zoom call announcing the report. “This existed before but it’s exposed now.”

The foundation manages more than $90 million in charitable assets. In recent years, it has taken on the role of addressing issues such as income inequality, improving the arts, and providing disaster relief in the wake of the 2018 gas explosion in the Merrimack Valley and now during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beth Francis, the president and CEO, said the foundation’s efforts to help out during the pandemic illuminated the problem of the lack of online access. The report, conducted by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, revealed just how large the divide is.

The report examined U.S. Census Bureau data in all 34 communities in Essex County. The Census Bureau began asking questions about digital access on its American Community Survey in 2013 to measure the development of broadband access and decrease barriers to it, according to the bureau.

The report, called Striving for Digital Equity, found that nearly 80% of Essex County households own desktop or laptop computers and have access to wired broadband. But that means that nearly 60,000 households, with about 160,000 people, do not.

Nine of the 10 neighborhoods with the lowest rates of broadband access and computer ownership are in Lawrence and Lynn, although the problem cuts across every community for families earning less than $35,000 per year, the report said.

Latino residents are twice as likely to lack broadband access compared to their white, non-Latino neighbors, according to the report.

The report said communities in Essex County have worked hard to provide students with computers, but noted there were problems with broadband faltering with everyone in the family online at the same time, and also privacy concerns in tight living arrangements.

“If you have a great computer and solid, reliable broadband access but don’t have a room where you can close the door, it’s hard to make the best of the digital world,” Evan Horowitz, the director of the Center for State Policy Analysis, said in the Zoom presentation.

Horowitz said language is another dimension of the digital divide because many of the resources are available only in English.

Older residents could also benefit from better access, especially with the shift to telemedicine during the pandemic, the report said.

The report mentioned a variety of possible approaches to closing the gap, some of which are being used elsewhere. Those include communities providing universal broadband and expanded public Wi-Fi hotspots; negotiating reduced rates with internet providers for schools and older people; creating a “digital equity fund” with public money and private philanthropy to provide computers for every family; using large community spaces to provide free internet access; and establishing a countywide “digital service corps” of young people to help train seniors.

“We need a balance of local and regional efforts as well as bold long-term initiatives and short-term interventions,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said the next steps are to gather more details on what kinds of efforts are already underway, and identify areas to invest in and work regionally toward larger solutions.

“Today is just a start of the conversation,” he said.

 

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