RACINE — Closing the gap on technology deserts – the ability to have consistent, working internet services for everyone – continues to be a common struggle throughout the United States.
Areas of Racine and the surrounding communities certainly aren’t immune to these situations.
The term “technology deserts” has become a buzzword, and while Wisconsin doesn’t rank among the worst of the barren areas in the country, there are plenty of households here where that continues to be a problem. In an era where nearly every part of our daily lives revolves around technology, that is not OK.
The negative impact of technology deserts
“When technology lags behind, keeping up with your education and your career become much more time-consuming,” Racine Public Library Executive Director Angela Zimmerman said in a recent interview with Racine County Eye. “Outdated or absent technology can bar our community members from some opportunities altogether.”
According to a 2020 study, the states ranked with the most internet deserts are Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. The states will the fewest deserts are Washington, Utah, Colorado, New Hampshire, California, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
The study indicated that 15% of households in Wisconsin did not have access to reliable internet.
According to SatelliteInternet.com, a technology desert is defined as an area where residents cannot find affordable, high-speed internet. Most of those happen in sparsely populated or rural areas, although, there also are places in urban areas where such services do not exist.
A study in 2020 by the World Economic Forum revealed that 6% of Americans do not have access to a high-speed internet connection. In 2019, the FCC estimated that 21.3 million Americans did not have access to internet service at broadband speeds; research by Microsoft indicated that number could be as high as 157.3 million.
What does that mean for us here?
Zimmerman said households in east Caledonia and Wind Point are the least affected by technology deserts, while the areas most affected are west Caledonia and inner Racine.
“This isn’t just a household issue, however, but a lack of access that impacts a person’s opportunities and has a ripple effect throughout the community,” she said.
Zimmerman pointed to a study by the staff of Julian Thomas Elementary School, which is adjacent to the area’s biggest technology desert as just one example. Throughout two years of Community Conversations conducted by United Way of Racine County, staff reported that “outdated and sparse technology” was one of the biggest challenges in their school.
Zimmerman provided some numbers that bear out the problem:
- Low-income households throughout the state often sacrifice internet access in favor of other necessities; 33% of the households under the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) threshold don’t have an internet subscription, compared to 9% above the threshold.
- Lower-earning job-seekers are more likely to apply for jobs from their phones; 32% of smartphone users earn less than $30,000, compared to 7% earning above $75,000. Applying for a job on one’s phone is less than ideal, noted Zimmerman. “(This places) on these applicants a barrier of greater time and difficulty, if the job application will work on their phone at all.”
- A study by Deutsche Bank revealed that internet access in Black and Latino households is 10 years behind that of white households. By 2045, if the disparity is not corrected, 76% of Blacks and 62% of Latinos will be “underprepared or altogether disqualified” from 86% of the country’s jobs, Zimmerman said.
Now is the time for Racine and other areas affected by the technology deserts to act, according to Zimmerman.
“(We) have a chance to develop in a way that counteracts inequities and bridges barriers for low-income households, people of color and other marginalized communities,” she said. “The first step to that, however, is resources and education, hence the need for free technology, easily accessible coding and engineering courses, and other services we offer aboard the Techmobile and in the library.”
Earlier this fall, the Racine Public Library unveiled its Techmobile, a custom-built vehicle funded by donations from the community and built by LDV of Burlington.
Within the Techmobile are a number of technology-based items available for visitors to use, including hotspots, laptop computers, programmable robots and books about technology in both English and Spanish. It will also house some of the library’s 3-D printers and laser engravers that can be used for workshops and training.
The hope is that the Techmobile and the Library Go! service will help bridge that gap, Zimmerman said. According to the 2020 United States Census, 6,279 households east of I-94 (11.5% of all households) have no household internet access.
“These households, as well as locations with lower checkout rates than other parts of our service area, are where the Techmobile will focus its services,” she said.
“If we’re able to get a hotspot in the hands of even just one person working on their resume, or get a Chromebook to a child so they can complete their homework, we’re leveling the playing field and making a difference. The Techmobile is just another conduit for providing innovative, community-wide access to all the library’s resources.”
Looking toward the future, Zimmerman said in a perfect world, this gap will be completely wiped out – of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and the library isn’t immune to budgetary and staffing issues.
There are a number of programs along with the Techmobile, however, that will continue to help Racine and its residents find a way, she said. The library will keep utilizing its Library Go! setup with the Bookmobile, the book bikes, its home delivery service and outreach programs, along with the Techmobile.
“We’d ideally love to be in every corner of our service population 24/7, but the issues in accomplishing that always come back to funding and staffing,” Zimmerman said. “We’re going to proudly do what we can to listen to our community’s needs… and be hopeful we’ll be able to grow even further in the near future.”
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