Assume native concerning the digital divide

Think local about the digital divide

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.

A roof in the Bronx could point the way to better internet in the United States.

One Monday, workers screwed an internet antenna – a flat, rectangular box attached to a metal pole – on the side of the roof of a Catholic school in the South Bronx. It broadcasts free WiFi to people who live in close proximity. About 38 percent of the Bronx's residents don't have internet at home, even more than the 29 percent for the city as a whole.

The pandemic has highlighted the damaging divide between those who can get online and those who can't because internet lines can't reach their homes or can't afford access or computers – or all of the above.

The Bronx Project, led in part by a clean energy start-up called BlocPower and community organizations including the South Bronx Churches, is among many trying to address this big problem by thinking small. The initiative uses technologies that generate improvised internet signals that cover a specific area with relatively little effort, bureaucracy, or cost.

Small internet projects like this are far from perfect. You can struggle due to lack of money, technological problems, or failure to involve residents.

But people I've talked to who advocate better and fairer online access in the US say that small internet networks combined with better funding and government policies are part of the solution to America's digital divide are. And we could see more of that effort: New York officials said in July that they planned to divert taxpayer dollars from the police department to fund more community internet networks, especially for public housing residents.

Donnel Baird, executive director of BlocPower, said he wanted to prove that it doesn't necessarily cost a fortune for local officials, business people, and community groups to expand Internet access in large cities.

"There's no reason people in New York, Detroit, and Chicago shouldn't have internet access," Baird said. "This is a completely solvable problem."

Initiatives like the one in the South Bronx are essentially sophisticated DIY internet projects. Companies like BlocPower pay fees to access existing cable or telephone company internet lines, and antennas installed in high places like rooftops relay internet signals from point to point.

Wireless receivers installed in residential or commercial buildings transmit the signals. In these types of systems, usually referred to as mesh internet, each new antenna makes internet connections stronger and more reliable for everyone.

There are small commercial Internet service providers using this or similar technologies, including Monkeybrains in the Bay Area and Brooklyn Fiber in New York, and small government or community-run Internet networks such as the wireless Internet network in Coshocton County, Ohio and the Point in the Bronx .

Small projects are not a panacea. Some community internet programs have struggled, and Baird and others involved in local internet networks say that they can only succeed if residents have ownership and authority over them. The BlocPower network is just getting started and it's too early to say if it will catch on.

This is neither a new problem nor a commitment from politicians to do something about it. President Trump, and now President-elect Joe Biden, have announced that they want to offer internet services to more Americans.

But the more I've talked to people about this problem, the more I believe the solution will not be a big bang solution, but a variety of approaches that include better government funding and less chaotic politics at the federal level as well as on yourself -interested companies and local community groups or cities that operate their own internet networks tailored to their needs. Our colleagues at DealBook have a package of ideas for fixing America, and one suggestion was to give every child a computer.

This year I was especially angry about the state of our internet in America. These conversations made me hopeful that local thinking could be part of the answer.

My colleague Natasha Singer wrote a great article this week about the pressures educators face during the pandemic of teaching remotely or in combination in the classroom, while she and her students also try to stay safe and deal with domestic challenges. That is much.

Natasha also wrote this report on the unintended consequences of student use of technology making virtual learning difficult:

One of the most demoralizing aspects of pandemic education, the educators told me, is that they cannot see their distant students.

This is because in schools that offer privacy options, many students leave their webcams or audio turned off during the live video class. In fact, some students only interact with their teachers by entering comments in a chat associated with the video. Many educators say they are now teaching live video courses on blank screens.

"We joke a lot about feeling like we are having meetings every day," said Mircea Arsenie, an environmental science teacher at a Chicago public high school, "because we sit there and say," Is anyone there? !! ? & # 39; ”

Some students turn off their webcams for privacy reasons – they don't want people to look at their family members or their home. Other students turn off webcams to play games on their phones or text their friends.

But there's a deeper problem too, said Amanda Kaupp, a psychology teacher at a St. Louis public high school. Students have developed passive technology habits by constantly consuming entertainment such as YouTube and Netflix videos.

With distance learning, schools are asking students to instantly develop active relationships with technology, while many digital tools are poorly designed and students are distracted and stressed by the pandemic. Kaupp said that in a recent live lesson, 70 percent of students admitted they were using their phones at this point as well.

"I've had the feeling for a long time that the obsession with technology in the classroom was an obsession with a false god," said Kaupp, "and even more so now."

Also from Natasha is this video of a teacher in Chicago and his wife dressing up for Halloween to visit students he hadn't seen in person all year. It is wonderful. The sign he carries reads, "Trick or Treat. Hold six feet. They are the students we love to teach!"

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you would like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]

If you do not have this newsletter in your inbox yet, please register here.