A new report found the St. Louis region has widespread disparities in access to the internet and technology, with areas like North St. Louis County and St. Louis City facing the most barriers.
More than half of all households in St. Louis City and St. Louis County are affected by the digital divide, according to the report.
“We’ve known for a decade or more in this country that the digital divide was problematic, but it was really COVID that brought it home,” said Kathy Osborn, President and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Business Council.
The report was commissioned by the Regional Business Council and the St. Louis Community Foundation.
Large portions of the St. Louis Region have only one internet service provider, and that is often expensive and low-quality, according to the report. It also found many families don’t have devices to connect to the internet and also need training to use the technology.
“It was amazing and sobering to see what we thought we knew backed up with this kind of data,” said Kristen Sorth, Director and CEO of the St. Louis County Library. “We’ve got to figure out a long term solution that is reliable, affordable and that we teach people how to use.”
These issues are especially problematic for education in St. Louis; as children were asked to learn from home over the last two years, many districts found big gaps in students’ abilities to log on.
“As a school system, we’re not in a vacuum,” said University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “We had devices, we had hotspots. We quickly noticed that if the neighborhood where students and families live doesn’t have the infrastructure, the devices don’t work.”
Students in North St. Louis County districts including Jennings, Normandy Schools Collaborative and Riverview Gardens, along with St. Louis Public Schools, face some of the biggest challenges.
“We need to look at the most vulnerable communities and prioritize them,” said Hardin-Bartley. “We need to invest. It is a resource issue.”
The digital divide is often a reflection of income inequality in the St. Louis region, the report found. It also has economic implications, Osborn said.
“When you talk about business and workforce, if we lose the whole era of children because they don’t have the technology they need to be fully educated, that ultimately is going to affect who’s coming into our workplace,” she said.
But a solution to the problem will be expensive. The initial infrastructure investment could cost $200-300 million. To make broadband available to low-income families, it could cost $45-50 million in annual subsidies plus an initial investment of $20-30 million in devices.
The report suggested school districts, libraries and community organizations need to partner to address the problem. Libraries already provide internet access, devices and even training in digital literacy and technology.
“I definitely think that libraries are positioned to assist the community with the educational component and how to use the technology,” Sorth said.
There are also hundreds of millions of dollars available in federal funding to address these issues, from the American Rescue Plan Act and from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That money is set aside for the entire state, but Sorth hopes lawmakers will pay attention to this report’s findings.
“Rural Missouri struggles with internet access and reliable internet access the exact same way that parts of St. Louis County and St. Louis city are suffering,” Sorth said. “We just have to make sure that the state and some of our decision makers know that we’ve all got the same issues. So let’s come up with a solution that benefits everybody.”
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