Another digital divide: Americans without access to devices

Workers from Tech for Troops, a non-profit organization that refurbishes devices primarily for US military veterans and their families, tend to a laptop computer in Richmond, Virginia.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Affordable internet service is a major policy goal of the Biden administration, but cheap internet doesn’t help families who don’t have a laptop or other connected device.

The term “digital divide” has often been used to describe a lack of broadband access, but as the White House and other agencies strive to tackling internet access costs, many say that access to the computers needed to access the internet has not received enough attention.

“Everyone has started to realize that having a pipe laid in your house, apartment, or neighborhood doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have a device to access it,” Michael Abensour said. , responsible for the impact. at technology access organization Compudopt and former senior vice president of policy at the renovation group Human IT.

A few bills seek to address this problem. JThe Computers for Veterans and Students Act, or COVS Act, introduced last May by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., directs the General Services Administration to direct serviceable and decommissioned federal computers to nonprofit refurbishers who can repair and distribute these devices to students, veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and school districts. The bill also comes with digital literacy training, which some organizations like Tech for Troops offer.

Device access for every U.S. act — backed by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va. — would award up to two $400 appliance vouchers to eligible households. The legislation was added in the Build Back Better Act, where it was renamed the Connected Device Grant Program.

Both bills are facing a time crunch as the United States heads toward midterm elections in November, though lawmakers are confident each has a meaningful fighting chance.

COVS law

Spanberger remains particularly bullish on the COVS Act, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., and two other Democrats in the House of Representatives.

She was inspired to draft the bill after visiting Tech for Troops, a non-profit organization that refurbishes aircraft primarily for US veterans and their families. During his visit, she spoke with veterans, including some who were left homeless because they lacked access to basic online functions like banking, education and job search.

SNL pictureMark Casper stands tall in Tech for Troops’ 7,000 square foot facility, which holds laptops, desktops and other electronic devices.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

“When it comes to surplus or used government items, there can be a lot of red tape to authorize the donation of such devices,” Spanberg told S&P Global Market Intelligence, adding that directing surplus laptops and computers directly to refurbishers can ensure they get to a home that needs to be online.

Federal support would make a major difference for Tech for Troops, said Mark Casper, a former Marine who now runs the nonprofit.

“If we had enough computers, we could theoretically erase and image 140 a day,” he said, compared to 25 to 50 a day today. Tech for Troops may also expand to other cities.

“If federal legislation passes…we would be able to send more computers to veterans and their families,” Casper said.

The need for devices

Without a connected device in the home, families are at a huge disadvantage.

“Your kids aren’t logging on to further their education. Your wife won’t find a job,” Casper said. “It creates a cycle of poverty.”

Forty percent of low-income households — defined by total income below $30,000 a year — don’t have a device, according to June 2021 data published by Pew Research. The gap is particularly felt in black and Latino communities, whose households are more than twice as likely to be device-free as those in a white household, according to a 2022 report by the National Urban League. .

Statistics point to the 21st century necessity of owning a computer to thrive economically. A 2021 451 Research report shows that 48% of organizations expect remote work to remain relevant to a significant number of their employees by working remotely full-time or adopting a hybrid work model.

SNL picture

McEachin, which supports the Connected Device Grant Program, says Market Intelligence the lack of appliances is particularly an issue in some of the Virginia communities it serves.

“[People] lose economic opportunities. They’re losing partly because of a lack of broadband, but also partly because they don’t have a workforce that knows how to use those devices in the first place, or even who has access to those devices. “, he said in an interview.

Existing programs

The FCC, in an email to Market Intelligence, said its Affordable Connectivity Program provides eligible households with a one-time rebate of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet or desktop computer. . The agency’s emergency connectivity fund was also highlighted, where schools and libraries can get devices and hotspots at caps of $400 and $250, respectively.

An FCC spokesperson did not respond when asked if the commission supports device legislation in Congress.

While a $100 rebate is helpful, the Warnock-McEachin program better reflects the cost of commercial devices on the shelves whose sticker prices have risen amid chip pressures, said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy adviser at the digital advocacy group Public Knowledge.

The bill also provides for up to two vouchers per household. In low-income homes with a single computer, children and their caregivers must share a device, which limits how and when they can log on to complete tasks like homework or a telehealth appointment.

“Forcing families to make these kinds of choices is just not acceptable,” Leventoff said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration did not respond to a request for comment. Its Digital Equity Grant program and Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program can be used to obtain devices, but funding decisions are made by individual states and do not guarantee any increase in device availability.

Outside of the government, there are industry-led voluntary programs such as Comcast Corp.’s Internet Essentials, which allows eligible households to purchase a new Dell Technologies Inc. laptop or Chromebook for $149.99 plus tax.

Fight against electronic waste and the shortage of chips

Sources see several advantages to the bills over existing programs, particularly in terms of the COVS law, which relies on refurbished devices. The refurbishment includes erase user data, add memory and clean.

Digitunity, an umbrella organization for groups dedicated to filling technology gaps, estimates that nonprofit renovators in its network diverted around 6.5 million pounds of e-waste from landfills in 2021 when they deployed devices in underserved communities. Scot Henley, executive director of Digitunity, said legislation such as the COVS Act would help amplify efforts to keep old machines away from the trash heaps.

“Whenever you are able to extend the life of [a device] and taking it out of its first use and using it to improve people’s lives is going to keep it out of the waste stream,” Henley said.

Digitunity member Tech for Troops recycled approximately 112,000 pounds of equipment in 2021.

Invoices can also ease price and inventory pressures caused by chip shortages since most Renovated computers don’t need a new chip, Henley and others said.

SNL pictureShelves of essential computer equipment at Tech for Troops.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

For computers that are too old, some parts are still useful for other machines that need parts replaced. Components can also be sold to wholesalers to keep refurbishing organizations running. In the Tech for Troops Supply Room, for example, shelves hold stacks of CPUs, ICs, and other hardware available for use.

clock ticking

The House Oversight Committee advanced Spanberger’s COVS legislation in early April. He is still awaiting a vote in the House as well as support in the Senate, with Spanberger noting that while his bill has support from both sides of the aisle, there is an “outreach issue” surrounding it. She said her office continues to work to recruit more sponsors on the House side while garnering votes in the Senate ahead of the midterms.

The McEachin-Warnock grant program faces a unique ascension as a bill supported by Build Back Better. But McEachin said the broadband and telecommunications aspects of the suspended social spending framework are uncontroversial compared to other provisions.

There is “no reason” for the bill not to pass, he said. McEachin describes lawmakers treating the program as a separate grant bill and hopes for more progress before the month-long congressional recess in August.

451 Research is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

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