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New study shows depth of digital divide in St. Louis, St. Louis County

Access to high-speed internet, affordability of devices, and understanding how to use technology all contribute to a very deep digital divide in St. Louis.

SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — A new report shows there is an incredibly serious digital divide between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. From digital access to understanding technology, the divide impacts almost half of all households and has only intensified with the pandemic.

The report was commissioned by the St. Louis Community Foundation and the Regional Business Council and prepared by the Center for Civic Research and Innovation and the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

"It showed us that if you don't have technology in the home, then you can't be competitive in terms of how you learn how you access health care, maybe someday even how you vote," said Kathy Osborn, president and CEO of the Regional Business Council. "It is becoming a fundamental issue."

The pandemic highlighted how serious the problem is for school kids in virtual learning, or parents required to work from home. It also impacted seniors who had to access services like healthcare online.

"It took COVID for us to really say we have a problem," said Osborn.

The study found that households lacking digital access and devices are cut off from the opportunity to engage in the economy. Basically, changes thought to be temporary due to the pandemic are now increasingly understood as permanent shifts to how we work, learn, get health care, understand financial information, or connect with family and friends.

Around 150,000 households in St. Louis and St. Louis County struggle to afford high-speed broadband. Approximately 90,000 households are unable to afford adequate devices. An estimated 100,000 adults, particularly seniors, need some form of digital literacy and tech support. Low-income and minority communities are also deeply impacted. 

"I think everyone says, 'Well, everyone has a phone.'" said Kristen Sorth, the executive director of the St. Louis County Public Library system. "You cannot write a paper on your phone. You just cannot. And so these are things that are not changing post-pandemic. We're not going to go back to a place where people don't need reliable access to the internet. It's like a utility."

Sorth said libraries have been helping with digital equity for many years, but the pandemic showed how much libraries have become community centers. While libraries focus on traditional services like books and reading programs, they also provide things like wifi access, hot spots, Chromebooks, and Grandpads.

RELATED: St. Louis Library hopes free 'GrandPad' tablets for eligible grandparents will help bridge digital divide

"We also provide a lot of resources for community members that they may not find elsewhere.," said Sorth.

The library system received $4 million dollars in CARES Act funding to help create a digital equity initiative, which included providing about 1,500 seniors with grandpads, tablets that are designed to meet the needs of people over 75. They come preloaded with software and built-in 4G LTE services that allow for email, phone calls, video calls, and receiving photos.

It was a small way to take a bite out of the digital divide.

Aside from the new study showing the depth of problems the city and county face with digital access, it also provided a roadmap forward.

"I think people need to read this report," said Sorth. "I really do think that it would be good for people to have an understanding of how many households are limited in their access to technology."

The report shows that addressing the divide will take commitment, innovative solutions, and collaboration from private businesses, nonprofits, and the government. It will also likely take hundreds of millions of dollars. 

"It's a critical issue in so many areas," said Osborn. "I think what the report is --  it's a wake-up call."

To read the report, click here.

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