An instructor with the D.C.-based non-profit group Byte Back and her class. The group offers free basic and more advanced computer skills classes to adults so they can find jobs.

An instructor with the D.C.-based non-profit group Byte Back and her class. The group offers free basic and more advanced computer skills classes to adults so they can find jobs.

Without internet access, it can be difficult to submit a resume, write a research paper, take an online class or order groceries without going to the store.

But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the consequences of digital disconnection are even more dire.

People who lack internet access may not receive critical health information, or be able to get groceries delivered to their doors. They may not be able to talk to a doctor or nurse from their homes. And their children are cut off from online learning.

Nationally and locally, governments and private companies are working together to blunt the effects of the digital divide during the pandemic, and have found ways to provide internet service to those who can’t afford it.

How are more people getting connected? How can we build on these measures once the pandemic is over? And who is still left out in the digital cold?

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Nicol Turner-Lee Fellow; The Brookings Institution’s Governance Program’s Center for Technology Innovation; @BrookingsGov
  • Jay Melder Assistant City Administrator for Internal Services; District of Columbia; @OCTODC
  • Elizabeth Lindsey CEO; Byte Back @ByteBackDC


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about the digital divide and the effect the coronavirus is having on it, also the economic impact of COVID-19 on the arts, but first, just before we came on the air Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held separate news conferences to announce additional measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in our region. WAMU's Martin Austermuhle joins us now from D.C.'s Wilson Building with the latest. Martin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:38

    MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me.

  • 12:00:39

    NNAMDIMartin, what did Mayor Bowser announce at the District's press conference?

  • 12:00:43

    AUSTERMUHLESo Mayor Bowser didn't say much more than what she's been saying in the past, which is stay at home as much as possible. Stay away if you can. If you're looking to visit the District, now is not the time. But she didn't make any bigger announcement about a shelter-in-place order like has happened in other states. There was no sort of announcement that the city was going to be taking any more restrictive steps to make sure the people stayed home, just an encouragement that people should keep staying home as some have been doing over the last couple of days.

  • 12:01:09

    NNAMDII'm pretty sure somebody asked a question about sheltering-in-place. How did she respond?

  • 12:01:13

    AUSTERMUHLEShe basically said the sheltering-in-place is an order that implies you're going to go nowhere, but stay inside your house. And that's not a message she wanted to send. She wanted to make sure that people can go out for essential activities. That could be shopping for groceries. It could be going to a pharmacy, a bank. It could even include doing some exercise around your house provided you're keeping your distance from people. So she essentially said that she thought it was enough to just keep reminding people that they had to stay home, and that she thinks most people have been doing a relatively good job of it so far.

  • 12:01:42

    NNAMDIAnd Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland announced additional closures in Maryland starting at 5:00 p.m., today. What exactly is shutting down?

  • 12:01:51

    AUSTERMUHLESo he said he's going to be closing down non-essential businesses. Now the devil is also in the details and the definition of what's an essential business is is pretty broad. It includes banks. It includes pharmacies, farmer's markets, pet stores. It includes your grocery store. It includes factories. I mean, a cell phone store could stay open. So a lot of businesses could potentially still stay open because they're defined as being essential.

  • 12:02:13

    AUSTERMUHLEWhat this probably means is that if you're running let's say a bookstore that is most likely non-essential and would have to close. But it seems that, again, bars and restaurants that are offering take out service will still be able to function as they have been over the last couple of days.

  • 12:02:27

    NNAMDIDid he say anything else about a kind of lockdown?

  • 12:02:31

    AUSTERMUHLENo. He basically -- he stressed, he said, "This is not a shelter-in-place order. We're not, you know, we're not going to use the police to enforce these sorts of things." It's nothing as restrictive as what we've seen in places like California or New York or Illinois where they're taking a much harder line on people being outside. He, you know, just wanted to kind of -- again, like the Mayor in the District kind of admonish people to stay inside, to stay away from crowds.

  • 12:02:55

    AUSTERMUHLEAnd especially there was mention, at least on Bowser's side, of the Tidal Basin of people going to see the Cherry Blossoms on a nice spring day. And she said, just don't do that. You can see the Cherry Blossoms next year. So, again, the message seems to be more a kind of stern reminder from an angry parent that you should not be going outside if you can avoid it.

  • 12:03:11

    NNAMDIDid you get the sense that there is likely to be a shelter-in-place order coming soon? I know that D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has apparently called for one.

  • 12:03:19

    AUSTERMUHLEYeah. And we asked the mayor about that and the mayor responded by saying, you know, the Attorney General has never responded to a public health emergency, and this is not the time for politics. So she was clearly taking a little offense to what he was suggesting. We did ask a couple of times if the mayor thought that a shelter-in-place order would be coming. At some point she said they're reviewing how things are developing over the next -- every single day and they could change their minds at some point.

  • 12:03:44

    AUSTERMUHLEShe did say that she has had conversations with federal officials about federal parts of the District to give the city more flexibility and authority to close down access the way they did with the Tidal Basin yesterday and today. So you may see things like that like maybe at some point the Arboretum will see a little more restrictive access, but at this point the shelter-in-place order is kind of a wait and see proposition.

  • 12:04:08

    NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:04:10

    AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me. I appreciate it.

  • 12:04:12

    NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle is Politics Reporter at WAMU. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is scheduled to speak at 2:00 p.m. today. You can find coverage of the press conference and all of the latest local updates on the coronavirus pandemic at or Later in the broadcast we'll be looking at the economic impact of COVID-19 on the arts. But first many of us take for granted the hardware and internet connections that make telework and distance learning possible, but a quarter of D.C. households don't have broadband internet service and tens of thousands of people in Maryland and Virginia also live on the wrong side of what's known as the digital divide.

  • 12:04:53

    NNAMDISo what are the consequences of living without high speed internet or when you're only connection is a smartphone? Who is trying to help close the digital divide in these worrisome days and in the future? Joining us to discuss this is Jay Melder, an Assistant City Administrator for Internal Services for the District of Columbia. Jay Melder, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:15

    JAY MELDERThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:05:17

    NNAMDINicole Turner-Lee is a Fellow at The Brookings Institution's Governance Program's Center for Technology Innovation. Nicole Turner-Lee, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:26

    NICOLE TURNER-LEEOh, thanks for having me.

  • 12:05:27

    NNAMDIElizabeth Lindsey is Executive Director of Byte Back, a local non-profit that teaches computer literacy. Elizabeth, are you there?

  • 12:05:36

    ELIZABETH LINDSEYI am here. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:05:38

    NNAMDIGlad you could join us. Elizabeth, you run a non-profit that provides free computer literacy classes to adults in the Washington region. How does being disconnected from digital life disadvantage people?

  • 12:05:51

    LINDSEYIt disadvantaged people -- it disadvantages people in so many ways that are even hard to count. And it's even more evident now. While we're in this current crisis many of us are relying upon technology to order food, to communicate with our healthcare providers, to work from home. And people without access aren't able to do those things. Those workers that are being laid off and or are still having to go to work are those individuals, who don't have access to technology.

  • 12:06:25

    NNAMDIHow does not having access to the internet put people at particular risk during this coronavirus pandemic?

  • 12:06:33

    LINDSEYAbsolutely. So, for example, this morning I was ordering groceries online. People who don't have access to the internet aren't able to do that. They're also not able to work from home meaning that they might not be able to have a paycheck to continue to support their family.

  • 12:06:52

    NNAMDIMillions of low income people have smartphones even though they can't afford broadband in their homes. Is a smartphone enough these days?

  • 12:07:01

    LINDSEYAbsolutely not. I often think about when I go into work. I don't sit down and pull out my iPhone and start typing away on my iPhone. I don't know anyone who wrote their resume on their phone either. And so having a smartphone is definitely better than nothing. But when it comes to things like working, like helping your children do their homework or write a paper, a cell phone just isn't enough. And I think it's a common misconception that having a cell phones is adequate for people without high incomes, and it's not. And it's not really fair.

  • 12:07:39

    NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that. I thought I was just thumb clumsy, but obviously there are certain things that are not --

  • 12:07:45

    LINDSEYIt's not just you.

  • 12:07:46

    NNAMDIApparently not. Nicole Turner-Lee, before we go on, let's make sure we all understand what we're talking about when we refer to broadband and Wi-Fi. What's the difference?

  • 12:07:58

    TURNER-LEESo what we're seeing today and, again, thank you for having me and love to be on the call with these two distinguished guests as well. You know, we used to talk about the internet, for people to get a sense of where we are today. Many of use grew up with that annoying sound of the modem connecting to AOL if you remember, right?

  • 12:08:15

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:08:15

    TURNER-LEESort of like that creepy, like okay, now you're on kind of sound. Today when with high speed broadband we're actually talking about a much faster bandwidth that has the ability to connect not just your smartphone, but a multiple range of devices that enable, you know, what people are receiving on their end, which is high speed internet. As what Elizabeth said, we're now at this place where this bandwidth is being consumed in so many ways that we never really imagined simultaneously, because everybody is at home.

  • 12:08:48

    TURNER-LEEAnd as a result of that, you know, that has an impact particularly on the numbers of people that are being asked to self-contain or quarantine during this very horrific time. It also has an impact on your ability based on what type of access you have to be able to download not just Netflix movies. But, you know, critical information. Engage in telehealth services where your doctor will see you virtually. And for the young people of this area and across the world actually, it's impacting their ability to receive and complete their assignments from school.

  • 12:09:24

    NNAMDII was about to say you wrote a piece recently about the coronavirus and how it has thrown the digital divide into stark relief for teachers and students. How is this happening?

  • 12:09:34

    TURNER-LEEYou know, it's really crazy what's happening right now. I mean the digital divide has always been an issue that we have had. And the piece that I wrote, which is part of a larger extension of a book that I'm publishing is really about the fact that we as America -- you know, we haven't paid attention to the fact that people lack digital access in this country. Twenty-one million people, Kojo, don't have access today. And with regards to the number of schools, you know, to date we're seeing about 53 million students that are sitting at home right now as we actually navigate through this process who do not have access.

  • 12:10:05

    TURNER-LEEAnd as we await some type of solution to this pandemic, you know, what is the impact on those kids that now have this disconnect between going into the classroom and being at home? And so the piece that I wrote is really, you know, us putting focus on this as a national emergency. Our educational system is in a meltdown right now. It's not in a meltdown, because of the great teachers that we have and the great curricula and experiences that students are having whatever school that they may go to.

  • 12:10:34

    TURNER-LEEIt's in a meltdown because we have teachers and administrators whose hands are tied when it comes to getting digital access out to low income kids, who do not have access to technology. They may have a phone like Elizabeth said, but that phone can't write them a research paper. They may have the ability -- or the parent may have a phone. But guess what? With everybody at home, who actually has the ability to get on that computer first? So we're really I think in a national crisis where we need to come up with solutions to solve not just the, you know, the global digital divide, but the immediate short term issues that we're facing right now.

  • 12:11:08

    NNAMDICan you describe, Nicole, some of the disparities in our region among school districts as they work to educate students in their homes?

  • 12:11:14

    TURNER-LEEYeah. Some of the kids, Kojo, they don't have access. I mean, unfortunately for public schools in particular rural schools they do not have an end to end program where there's one laptop per child or one tablet per child. And so as a result schools are now scrambling to figure out how to get hardware to students. You also look at broadband availability within the home. Low income families still fare on the lower end when it comes to a residential broadband connection, not just on your mobile device, which is helpful, but your ability to have what many of us have, which is a Wi-Fi connection that allows multiple users within the home to access.

  • 12:11:55

    TURNER-LEEIn addition to that, low income kids who are also a disproportionate minority, disproportionately foreign born, they are less likely to have multiple devices that exist within the home. So if you have two to three school children that are sitting in your house right now, you're probably battling over, which device they can use.

  • 12:12:13

    TURNER-LEEAnd so as a result our schools are not able to properly and expeditiously migrate online content to families. And I have to say this, the moral compass of some of these schools has been out of sight, because some schools have decided that if we cannot everyone, we're not connecting, you know, these school districts with regards to online curricula, which again, disadvantages some of the kids that may be ready to go.

  • 12:12:41

    NNAMDISorry to interrupt. Sorry to interrupt, but we're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on the digital divide and the coronavirus. 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:18

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about the economic impact of COVID-19 on the arts. Right now we're talking about its impact on the digital divide. It brings the digital divide into stark relief. And since we were just talking about schools, allow me to go to Stephen in Washington D.C. Stephen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Stephen, are you there. Stephen seems to have departed for a while.

  • 12:13:42

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Jay Melder, the Assistant City Administrator for Internal Services for the District of Columbia. Jay Melder, one of the departments you oversee for the District is its technology office. What does that office do when there's no coronavirus pandemic?

  • 12:13:58

    MELDERThat's right, Kojo. So I think that we've, you know, done a lot of work since 2016 when we got some census data about how many households in the District of Columbia were connected to broadband. We took that information, I think you said it earlier about a quarter to 20 percent of our residents did not have connection to broadband. We looked at that census data by census track and targeted those communities where we saw less broadband connectivity. We brought our mobile tech labs. We brought My-Fi devices. We leveraged partnership to programs like Comcast internet access, programs to bring in low cost internet access to households where the government can't provide that last mile of connectivity. And we're seeing some of that work pay off certainly in the health emergency that we're in now as a lot of government services are available to used online.

  • 12:14:53

    MELDERBut, again, I think as we took this posture in the health emergency and Mayor Bowser was very clear with her government that no matter someone's connectivity to the website they were going to have connection and availability and access to critical District services.

  • 12:15:09

    NNAMDIOnce it was clear that COVID-19 had arrived in the District and much of the city's workforce would be working from home, Jay, what did you need to do to make sure that could happen?

  • 12:15:18

    MELDERWell, we -- you know, we went through a process two weeks ago to really determine, which services we could be providing online. How we could protect our workforce. And get them the kind of technology they needed to be able to work remotely from home. And right now we have about 54 percent of our workforce about 18,000 dedicated public servants working from home. The rest of those employees are providing critical services throughout the District government and are showing up every day to do that, police, fire, folks in our service centers, who are providing benefits to folks.

  • 12:15:55

    MELDERBut some of the things that we really had to troubleshoot in the first couple of days is just making sure as people were moving to that remote work that they had the resources with one click to be able to make sure that all of their antivirus programs were up to date. That they had the VPN access that would allow them to work secure and safely from home. And we were able to do that very successfully. And we've got, again, as I said 54 percent of our workforce doing their job from home today and doing it well.

  • 12:16:27

    NNAMDIJay, how about D.C. citizens who have no or little connection to the internet? What is the city doing for them during the pandemic?

  • 12:16:37

    MELDERWell, we're really trying to promote and amplify some of our private partners who are out there making sure that that last mile of connectivity is available for households. So like I mentioned Comcast right now has free internet access for 60 days for any household that applies. It's really easy to sign up. You just have to be able to have access to smartphone and to go to and to sign up. And the device will be sent to your home in a week for that connection. And there are other services, Xnifity, again, is extending its hotspots, which has a lot of coverage throughout the city to try to give many people that internet access as possible. But, again, you know, internet access is just one piece of the puzzle.

  • 12:17:28

    MELDERThere's the devices that people need to be able to use that connectivity and also the skills and the training to be able to use it effectively. And that's where a lot of the work that we've done in the last three years with our targeted pilot programs for seniors, for some of our communities that were not connected to broadband, getting out there doing some training with our mobile devices. Mobile van services to help people learn how to get connected.

  • 12:17:58

    NNAMDIWhen you talk about what Comcast and others presumably like AT&T and Verizon are doing that's not just limited to the District, is that correct?

  • 12:18:06

    MELDERNo. That's nationwide.

  • 12:18:09

    NNAMDIOkay. Nicole, are you there?

  • 12:18:12

    TURNER-LEEHere. I'm here.

  • 12:18:14

    STEPHENI'm here. Can you hear me? This is Stephen.

  • 12:18:16

    NNAMDIOh, Stephen. Finally, you're on the air, Stephen. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:20

    STEPHENHi. I am Stephen Siden. I'm a graduate from American University. I am a Former Board Chair of Byte Back and I'm a Board member of Onramp Career. And I'm a PTA President and I have two homeschoolers right now in D.C. public school trying to do their online learning. And my question is really around the youth of D.C. and the Summer Youth Employment Program. And I know that Lindsey was a big proponent of that. I'm just curious how we think the coronavirus might impact the youth and the summer programs and internships and apprenticeships.

  • 12:19:00

    STEPHENAnd how what we can do now to get in front of that so we can train our students for what virtual working looks like because we're at a time that is unprecedented. And not only do we need to do this for our students, but we also have to do this as gearing out for them for college and for their careers. So this is an amazing opportunity to give kids of gift on how to self-learn, how to self-educate, how to self-promote in a world where they can't up physically. And what do you think we're going to do for intern programs and apprenticeships to give them a transition or a head start moving forward to this summer?

  • 12:19:48

    NNAMDIElizabeth Lindsey.

  • 12:19:51


  • 12:19:52


  • 12:19:52

    LINDSEYOkay. Fabulous. Great. Hi, Stephen. He was one of the original Board members (unintelligible) it's really wonderful to hear your voice. I think that's a wonderful question. At Byte Back we are continuing to teach our classes virtually. And, you know, it doesn't give our students the same opportunities as being in the workforce. But it's so essential that we continue to provide people with these skills, because they're going to be even more necessary than they were before after this is all over. We've just really seen the importance of jobs that use technology in the community. And so we think that our higher level classes, it's more difficult for people who don't have access to technology or who don't have the skills to use technology.

  • 12:20:44

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Stephen. Let's go to Heather in Adams Morgan again. Heather, are you there?

  • 12:20:52

    HEATHERCan you hear me?

  • 12:20:52

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:20:54

    HEATHERGreat. Given the very high senior poverty rate in D.C. I wanted to flag two agencies that are doing great work on this issue. One is the D.C. Public Library system. I got to Tenley Library a lot. It has a very high number of older unhoused residents there using a whole bank of PCs. Really important and lots of paper handouts. The second shout out is to OCTO. It was mentioned earlier. They have the D.C. Connect Program and the Senior Tech Program. I visited the bus that was in Ward 7 parked outside the Ridge Road Community Center. And the class was fun and funny. It was just great. I think they're not two sides of the digital divide. But it's a continuum. And so the idea is to help people to move along the digital divide.

  • 12:21:52

    HEATHERAnd whether it's Ward 3 or Ward 7 and 8 there are older adults, who don't know the difference between a flip top phone and a smartphone. So one of the things I liked about the Senior Tech Program is that they take people where they are and work with them in a non-condescending way.

  • 12:22:10

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you.

  • 12:22:11

    HEATHERI have one question. I'd love to know the percentage of older adults without smartphones. I've been looking it up at PIU and so forth. It would be very helpful to know if we can the percentage of older adults, who do not own or cannot afford smartphones.

  • 12:22:25

    NNAMDIYou mean older adults in this region?

  • 12:22:28

    HEATHERJust in D.C.

  • 12:22:31

    NNAMDIIn the District of Columbia. Jay Melder, do you have any idea?

  • 12:22:34

    MELDERI don't have any of that data with me, but I just do want to echo, you know, Heather's plug for the OCTO Senior Connect Program. You know, we've been able to train about 1,000 seniors in the last three years on how to use those mobile devices and how to stay connected. And appreciate her being able to describe that program better than I can.

  • 12:22:56

    NNAMDIAnd, Nicole Turner-Lee, Heather mentioned a bus. There are a couple of solutions that you suggest for getting internet to the disconnected quickly in a crisis. And I know buses is involved in one of them. So tell us what you have in mind.

  • 12:23:10

    TURNER-LEEYeah. I was actually happy to hear Heather speak about them and just wanted to give her a statistic on older Americans generally. We actually know that above 60 percent of older Americans actually have some level of access. As you get older in the continuum, 80 and above that's when your access actually begins to drop off particularly when you're starting to age in place and you really need access more than ever. AARP has a really great study on that, Heather.

  • 12:23:35

    TURNER-LEEBut, yeah, this whole idea of buses, I was actually glad that she brought that up. You know, we want people to understand that the digital divide can have immediate solutions. But in the end we need a long term conversation. Immediately I have proposed that we should be parking these stationary Wi-Fi equipped buses in neighborhoods right now. We want to get people back to work, people back to school, seniors back in line in terms of monitoring their own system remotely. Having these stationary buses is actually an idea.

  • 12:24:04

    TURNER-LEEIn places like the Coachella School District, South Carolina right now, they're parking buses in neighborhoods that have a Wi-Fi signal that kids and, you know, family members and others can get access to remote learning resources. That's so important as we improvise through this whole scenario right now. Just the same way we're doing these makeshift drive up testing centers, we actually need to have these stationary Wi-Fi hotspots really dispersed throughout the District and in other areas where we know communities are lacking broadband.

  • 12:24:38

    NNAMDIJay, we only have about a minute left, but could give us your opinion on the bus solution and quickly tell us about the effort underway to provide a hybrid laptop tablet device to every District of Columbia public school student.

  • 12:24:51

    MELDERSure. I think the Wi-Fi hotspot bus is an idea that we're looking at now. We're trying to look at every solution we can to bring more connectivity to D.C. residents.

  • 12:25:01

    NNAMDIHow about the hybrid laptop tablet device?

  • 12:25:05

    MELDERThe hybrid laptop tablet device to students, you know, started to roll out this year. DCPS handed out devices to six graders and ninth graders, I believe this year. Obviously distance learning begins at DCPS tomorrow with a lot of online activities and curriculum. But also schools are reaching out to their parents and their communities to be able to pick up hard copy packets at school, so again it's access.

  • 12:25:33

    NNAMDIThat's all the time we have. Jay Melder, Nicole Turner-Lee, Elizabeth Lindsey thank you all for joining us. By the way the music you're hearing in our break today comes from Capital Soundtrack Project. You've heard "Floating Leaf" by Peels and now the "Enthusiast" by Sansyou. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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