By Marsha Mansfield, JD
Director, LIFT Dane
Carlos sits in a McDonald’s parking lot trying to access Zoom for his child support hearing at the local courthouse. Leila waits across town in the parking lot of her local library. Across Wisconsin, thousands of citizens are relying on parking-lot Wi-Fi to access the internet. Lack of digital access has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic as everything from court proceedings, schooling and health care has migrated online, leaving behind thousands of Wisconsin residents. As the governor pointed out in his State of the State address, “Having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
The digital divide has long hurt Black, Hispanic, limited-education, low-income and tribal and rural households. Statistics gathered by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Research Center show that nationally, while 79% of white households have broadband internet, only 66% of Black households and 61% of Hispanic households do. A growing number of large and small businesses across our state are becoming part of the gig economy. For all of these reasons, the funding in the governor’s budget to increase broadband access is critical to the economic health and well-being of our residents. It will specifically help those needing the internet to address legal barriers to better employment and health.
The digital divide is the separation between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It includes both the lack of access to a device that can access the internet and the lack of access to connectivity. A recent front-page story in the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted the geographic chasm existing in Wisconsin, citing a recently released study by the UW’s Center for Community & Economic Development about the lack of broadband availability across our state. Governor Evers has prioritized universal access in his recently released budget.
Lack of digital access harms Wisconsinites for more than educational or health reasons. During COVID, our courts have gone virtual. Applications for government aid have moved online. More and more legal help is becoming remotely accessible to communities who do not have access to lawyers, but it requires broadband. Online legal clinics, legal assistance websites, legal hotlines, such as the State Bar’s Free Legal Answers website help thousands of people each year download forms, get questions answered, and obtain free legal help in a variety of areas. But all of these tools require internet access and often, it is at a steep cost to the consumer.
Access to justice is core to the effective functioning of our democracy. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Civil Legal System Modernization Project recommends specific ways to increase the availability and quality of free online legal tools to solve legal problems tied to economic security. But these tools are not available to those who need it most due to the lack of broadband access.
Economics more than geography counts in determining who has access to broadband internet. As Chris Stark, a UW Extension professor and co-author of the Center’s report, explained, this means that providers often don’t offer service at all or at unaffordable prices. This is reflected by findings that in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 40% of households lack fixed internet access.
Wisconsin needs a broadband fiber network in place that stretches across Wisconsin from Drummond, to Galesville, to Shullsburg, with high quality internet connectivity.
Companies operating in Wisconsin must sign on to the “Keep America Connected” pledge announced by FCC chair, Ajit Pai, to support Wisconsinites’ ability to maintain telephone and internet service during the COVID pandemic. By signing companies agree to:
• not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of an inability to pay the bills due to the coronavirus pandemic.
• waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
• open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.
Equally important is ensuring that families have usable devices so that our children don’t have to use their cell phone to attend class or do their homework. A tablet or laptop is essential to access health and legal resources online. All of this can be achieved by supporting the governor’s budget request to fund universal access; a worthy investment for us all.
Director, LIFT Dane