“Our most vulnerable communities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Diane Khiel, chair of the Miane Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said in a statement. “The pandemic exacerbated multiple inequities and Maine’s ability to adapt has depended on our connectivity — in the classroom, on the job, through telemedicine, and through our legal system. The pandemic has made clear that digital equity is an emerging and urgent civil rights issue.”

The Commission on Civil Rights, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957,  investigates allegations of discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or disability and makes recommendations to the president and Congress. Each state and the District of Columbia has a State Advisory Committee that functions as the “eyes and ears” of the commission at the local level.

In that role, the Maine Advisory Committee released at the end of January its report, “Digital Equity as a Civil Right in Maine,” illustrating the need for more affordable access to broadband and digital devices, a need for increased digital literacy training, and increased federal and state funding for broadband infrastructure.

Nationally, 34% of Black adults, 39% of Latino adults and 47% of those on tribal lands do not have a home broadband connection, compared to 21% of white adults.

The report details how existing disparities in access to broadband among all marginalized groups were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for students.

The Maine committee uncovered examples of rural students who would drive upwards of 45 minutes into town to utilize free Wi-Fi at fast food restaurants during the pandemic.

Among immigrant families, the committee noted that there is often just one laptop or phone for the entire household, leaving immigrant children at a significant disadvantage at school if classwork must be completed online.

Access for disabled students was severely impacted by the pandemic, the committee found.

“Prior to March 2020, many students with disabilities lacked internet access and a digital device at home,” the report reads. “The pandemic not only prevented them from attending school, their primary access to internet, it closed public places, such as libraries, universities, and community centers, their only other means of accessing online coursework.”

Across Maine, the disparities persist because neighborhoods in both rural and urban areas are often affected by what the committee defines as “digital redlining,” where internet providers deem certain communities unprofitable and do not offer services there.

“Because broadband access is not considered a household utility, it is acceptable for digital redlining to occur as part of a business’ profitability analysis,” the report reads. “Providers are less likely to deploy advanced high speed internet access, such as fiber-based services, in low-income areas, communities of color, and rural areas. Less affluent, older, nonwhite adults are the least likely to have access to high-speed internet in their homes.”

To address the market incentives that produced this inequality, the committee is recommending that the state legislature and state agencies make broadband a public utility subject to regulation that would promote equal access.

The committee also recommends allocating federal and state funding to provide vulnerable groups with devices and digital literacy training to help close the digital divide.

The focus on Maine’s digital disparities comes as the state is expected in the coming years to receive more than $400 million in federal funds for broadband through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, both passed by Congress last year.

Communities across Maine will compete for funds allocated through the newly formed Maine Connectivity Authority to pursue broadband projects and incentivize private providers to expand their networks.

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