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What Covid taught us about infrastructure

What Covid taught us about infrastructure

By Peter Nieckarz • Guest Columnist | We seem to be collectively breathing a sigh of relief as the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out and we move towards a post pandemic state of “normalcy.” While we are grateful to be taking our masks off and gathering with friends and loved ones, it is likely that we will not return to the normalcy we knew before the pandemic.  

In 2005, I published an article that speaks to the situation we find ourselves in today: I conducted a case study that suggested that, due to the internet, many social processes no longer require shared geographic space. Additional research also confirmed that the internet was rendering physical proximity less and less relevant. Our internet-dependent adaptations to the pandemic are reflective of this sociological phenomenon. 

The technology that helped us navigate the pandemic may have a permanent impact on our lives. Many people will return to their offices after COVID-19, but it seems likely that working from home will be more common in the future. The National Bureau of Economic Research predicts that the percentage of full workdays that will occur from home will increase from 5 percent before the pandemic to 20 percent after the pandemic. 

Indeed, remote work was one of the silver linings of the Pandemic. The Federal Highway Commission estimates that vehicle miles traveled dropped by 13 percent by and carbon emissions by 8 percent. Traffic congestion was down an astounding 73 percent. Major companies like Ford Motor and REI are reducing the amount of office space they maintain as they anticipate a portion of their workforce working remotely, at least part time. These vacated spaces could be repurposed as low-cost housing, schools, or even reverted to green space. There are many possibilities for positive outcomes.

Living in a diffuse rural area, my daughters do not often get to see their friends outside of school as much as I did in the suburban neighborhood of my youth. After the onset of remote learning, they faced the possibility of not interacting with friends at all. Through the conduit of simultaneous video chat and online gaming, my daughters were socializing with their friends more during the pandemic than they did before. This was likely not an anomaly as global video game revenue jumped 35 percent in 2020. In addition to our work lives, our place-based social lives have also found a sustained outlet on the internet.        

It is not all good news. If COVID-19 has led us to an era where remote work, remote learning, and online socialization are part of the new normal, then we sit at the precipice of a profound new dimension of social inequality where those without access to reliable broadband and related technologies will be in a situation where their opportunities for success and happiness will be undermined even further than they already were. According to the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of all U.S. households do not have broadband internet access. As recently as 2018, only 78 percent of households owned a laptop. A U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey found that approximately 13 million — or 25 percent of households with school-aged children — do not have regular access to the internet.  

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These facts may explain the three-million U.S. students who “fell off grid,” essentially dropping out of school entirely since the onset of the pandemic.

Aside from those who are missing school altogether, the digital divide impacted student learning in other ways, including the availability of technology in the home, experience with using a computer for schoolwork, and teacher experience and competence with using technology in their instruction. If the internet is involved in improving one’s quality of life and life chances, about one in four Americans are left out in the cold.     

Considering these realities, the bipartisan infrastructure deal coming out of Congress becomes even more weighty than it already was. The agreement includes provisions for expanding broadband access for Americans, yet Senate Republicans are signaling they will withhold their support for it. If so, it would continue to underscore how out-of-touch many members of Congress are. Policy regarding equality of opportunity must recognize that the internet and related technologies are endemic to individuals’ life chances. Access to broadband has become an indispensable facet of a basic standard of living and should be viewed as part of the social “safety net.” In short, we must redefine what is necessary for a basic standard of living. It is time for the Senate GOP to step into the 21st century by acknowledging that reality. 

Peter Nieckarz is a Western Carolina University associate professor of sociology. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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1 comment

  • Exactly so, Dr. Nieckarz. From his campaign through today, President Biden has been insisting that all of America's children have an opportunity to learn by having access to reliable broadband at home.

    "A U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey found that approximately 13 million — or 25 percent of households with school-aged children — do not have regular access to the internet," you wrote. That's a condemnation of (Republican) elected officials that is breathtaking. Unfortunately, as you note, Senate Republicans are already stonewalling universal broadband; in other words, Senate Republicans do not care whether one in every four children--more than 25 percent here in rural WNC--have access to learning. Even if their parents can buy them a laptop, they cannot use it to learn and turn in homework because of Republicans in the NC General Assembly and the US Congress.

    The person occupying our 11th District seat in the US House has made a slap-dash proposal that involves private businesses "competing" to sell broadband. Rep. Clampitt in the NC General Assembly is making similar noises. We're upper middle-class retirees yet we find Charter Spectrum's astronomic fees (rising all the time) barely affordable. How can working parents of two children afford it?

    We have no grandchildren yet we would be happy to pay higher taxes so every child can learn. Or the Congress can start taxing people who make over $50 million a year.

    posted by Mary

    Monday, 08/02/2021

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