- smart cities
- Digital Transformation
- Smart Infrastructure
As Cities Face COVID-19, the Digital Divide Becomes More Acute
As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, governments in many countries are taking drastic measures to help slow the infection. Bars, restaurants, and workplaces have all been shuttered. With adults being encouraged to work from home, many schools have similarly instituted remote classes for their students. Children in China, Europe, North America, and elsewhere have been participating in a live experiment of large-scale, remote, primary education through digital portals.
However, concern is growing about those on the other side of the digital divide. Without reliable access to internet-powered classrooms, participation in remote lessons can be difficult if not impossible. The International Telecommunications Union found in 2019 that while 97% of the world’s population live in areas with some internet availability, either mobile or wired, only 53.6% are connected. While the digital divide is greater in developing nations, developed countries see the divide run through rural and low socioeconomic status (SES) communities. In the US, households making under $30,000 are less likely to have internet than their wealthier counterparts, let alone the computers or smartphones to access it.
School districts choosing the emergency digital classroom route have had to grapple with this lack of access issue. Smart city approaches can help overcome the causes of this inequity, despite the complexity of the causes. Some cities are depending on established public Wi-Fi networks while others are finding innovative ways to get internet coverage to those who lack assess.
Smart Cites Are Ensuring Access though Infrastructure
The digital divide is a key focus for smart cities. When you ask officials in Birmingham, UK, Goyang, South Korea, or Nagpur, India why they place emphasis on publicly available Wi-Fi networks, part of the answer is universal: ensuring public access. While the internet is the backbone for smart city infrastructure, it also lays a foundation for greater social equitability. Residents without internet access may struggle to access government services, locate public amenities, telework, or turn in their homework.
As show by the COVID-19 crisis, lack of reliable access to online services can cause significant disruptions; especially to lower SES individuals. Some municipalities are using new smart city infrastructure to close this divide. In Gandhingar, India, 40 multifunction smart poles were installed that included access points to a public Wi-Fi network with the express purpose of providing access to those without. Brisbane, Australia similarly deployed 20 smart poles to boost its publicly available internet.
Smart pole hosted Wi-Fi is compelling, but the structures are typically only deployed in dense, central business districts that have few residences and even fewer low SES families. For less dense residential zones, some smart cities are coming to rely on mobile hotspots. South Bend, Indiana, has been parking Wi-Fi enabled school buses in lower income neighborhoods to ensure they can access online classes. Taking a different approach, the City of Chicago is one of many places with a hotspot checkout program allowing residents to borrow internet access points from libraries. Other cities are working with private partners to subsidize and simplify getting broadband at home. By implementing these types of access programs, smart cities are laying a foundation of digital equity for their communities that can be called upon by all residents; especially in times of crisis.