Shelter-in-Place and Internet Inequality: What’s the Connection?

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As most of the world is forced to stay home, internet and technology play essential roles in almost every aspect of the population’s shelter-at-home lives. The internet keeps loved ones communicating and in touch, informs people of what’s going on in the world, connects students to their teachers and professors, and provides access to the office for those able to work at home.

But what happens to the millions of Americans without an internet connection? Pew Research found that roughly two-thirds of Americans have broadband internet, although only half have service in rural areas. But the harshest reality is the amount of internet access by income. Over half (56%) of households with an income of $30,000 have broadband at home, compared to 92% for households earning over $75,000. The current shelter-in-place order has heightened inequality in America, now that the internet plays such an essential role in keeping individuals connected to society as functioning as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a greater socioeconomic divide than ever. Millions of Americans are currently unemployed and potentially unable to pay for internet service, which can potentially isolate them further. The question is, have corporations and legislators taken any measures to equalize the differences between the privileged and those struggling to pay for basic essentials? Here are some ways corporations and the U.S. government are addressing the undue hardship so many people are suffering.

Internet Programs

Access to a reliable internet connection is essential. In the case of online learning and working remotely, a high-speed internet plan without data restrictions is needed so that more than one device at home can connect to conferencing or video streaming. The problem is, faster plans with higher to unlimited bandwidth usage can be pricey or unavailable in certain areas.

Families with no access to reliable internet are unable to continue their children’s education from home or continue to work remotely while social distancing is required. Cheaper internet plans aren’t always a stopgap either — they can create performance issues that interfere with a person’s ability to access the internet by causing the connection to drop off or lag. In addition, less expensive plans with limited data usage throttle or slow down the speed or cut off the internet access altogether once the data cap is reached.

Fortunately, dozens of internet and phone providers including AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Sprint, and Verizon have signed on to the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Initiative. The initiative asks corporations to pledge not to shut off service to any home or small business for non-payment, as well as waive any late fees and finance charges, so customers can stay connected during the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption.

Besides the initiative, some of the top internet providers have set up COVID-19 relief programs providing free high-speed internet for qualifying low-income families and individuals. Here are some of the features depending on the service provider:

  • Free access to WiFi hotspots nationwide and free home internet with unlimited data for 60 days
  • Two months of free internet access as well as online training and tech support
  • Free internet and router rental for 60 days
  • Three months of free internet service and unlimited nationwide calls for households with kids, college students, or seniors
  • Free internet for 60 days for students and teachers

Online Learning

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that 290.5 million students around the world are suffering from disruptions to their education. The organization recommends educators to “adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning.” The reality is, students need more than an internet connection. They also need a computer to access online learning. Programs such as PCs for People and Computers with Causes provide financial assistance so low-income families can purchase computers to access the internet.

UNESCO also provides a list of free distance learning sources, including self-directed content, reading applications, and resources. Some of the tools listed can provide new insights and approaches to educational leaders looking to better develop systems for staff currently following the new shelter-in-place orders, to provide engaging instruction to students from a distance.


An often-overlooked aspect of internet inequality is adult illiteracy. highlights the correlation between illiteracy, education, and income, finding that 43% of the adults living in poverty have the lowest literacy levels, with 70% of adult welfare recipients struggling with illiteracy. The inability to read or write prevents many from taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and resources available online.

Can COVID-19 Bridge the Gap?

The unprecedented pandemic is affecting people socially, educationally, and economically. It’s not the first crisis the world faced, but it’s unlike anything ever seen before. The COVID-19 outbreak is heightening the struggle of millions of people who don’t have the ideal conditions at home to work, study, or stay in contact with the rest of the world while socially distancing. Local and federal governments, in conjunction with corporations and nonprofits, are working to bridge the internet gap to ensure everyone can weather the current storm.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.