“I had wanted to be online for years,” says the 65-year-old, but “I have to pay for my rent, buy my food—there were other things that were important.”
For as long as the internet has existed, there has been a divide between those who have it and those who do not, with increasingly high stakes for people stuck on the wrong side of America’s “persistent digital divide.” That’s one reason why, from the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to make universal broadband a priority.
But Biden’s promise has taken on extra urgency as a result of the pandemic. Covid-19 has widened many inequities, including the “homework gap” that threatened to leave lower-income students behind as schools moved online, as well as access to health care, unemployment benefits, court appearances, and—increasingly— the covid-19 vaccine, all of which require (or are facilitated by) internet connections.
Whether Biden can succeed in bridging the gap, however, depends on how he defines the problem. Is it one that can be fixed with more infrastructure, or one that requires social programs to address affordability and adoption gaps?
The hidden divide
For years, the digital divide was seen as a largely rural problem, and billions of dollars have gone into expanding broadband infrastructure and funding telecom companies to reach into more remote, underserved areas. This persistent focus on the rural-urban divide has left folks like Marvis Phillips—who struggle with the affordability of internet services, not with proximity—out of the loop.
And at the start of the pandemic, the continued impact of the digital divide became starkly drawn as schools switched to online teaching. Images of students forced to sit in restaurant parking lots to access free WiFi so they could take their classes on the internet drove home just how wide the digital divide in America remains.
The Federal Communications Commission did take some action, asking internet service providers to sign a voluntary pledge to keep services going and forgive late fees. The FCC has not released data on how many people benefited from the pledge, but it did receive hundreds of complaints that the program was not working as intended.
Five hundred pages of these complaints were released last year after a public records request from The Daily Dot. Among them was a mother who explained that the pandemic was forcing her to make an impossible choice.
“I have four boys who are all in school and need the internet to do their online school work,” she wrote. Her line was disconnected despite a promise that it would not be turned off due to non-payment. “I paid my bill of $221.00 to turn my services on. It was the last money I had and now do not have money to buy groceries for the week.”
Other messages spoke of the need to forgo food, diapers, and other necessities in order to keep families connected for schoolwork and jobs.
“This isn’t just about the number of people who have lost internet because they can’t afford it,” says Dana Floberg, policy manager of consumer advocacy organization Free Press. “We believe a far greater number of people … can’t afford internet but are sacrificing other necessities.”
According to Ann Veigle, an FCC spokesperson, such complaints are passed onto providers, who are “required to respond to the FCC and consumer in writing within 30 days.” She did not respond to questions on whether the service providers have shared reports or outcomes with the FCC, how many low-income internet and phone subscribers have benefited from the pledge, or any other outcomes of the program.
The lack of data is part of a broader problem with the FCC’s approach, says Floberg, since former chairman Ajit Pai recategorized the internet from a utility, like electricity, back to a less-regulated “information service.” She sees restoring the FCC’s regulatory authority as “the linchpin” toward “equitable and universal access and affordability” of broadband internet, by increasing competition and, in turn, resulting in better service and lower prices.
Measuring the wrong things
It took Marvis Phillips three months of free internet, two months of one-on-one training, and two donated iPads—upgraded during the pandemic to accommodate Zoom and telehealth calls—to get online. And since the city ordered people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus, Phillips says the internet has become his “lifeline.”
“Loneliness and social isolation is…a social justice and poverty issue,” says Cathy Michalec, the executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, the nonprofit that helped Phillips connect as part of its mission to serve low-income seniors. As with other solutions to isolation—bus fare to visit a park, tickets to a museum—internet connections also require financial resources that many older adults don’t have.
Four new hacking groups have joined an ongoing offensive against Microsoft’s email servers
A Chinese government-linked hacking campaign revealed by Microsoft this week has ramped up rapidly. At least four other distinct hacking groups are now attacking critical flaws in Microsoft’s email software in a cyber campaign the US government describes as “widespread domestic and international exploitation” with the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide.
Beginning in January 2021, Chinese hackers known as Hafnium began exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers. But since the company publicly revealed the campaign on Tuesday, four more groups have joined in and the original Chinese hackers have dropped the pretense of stealth and increased the number of attacks they’re carrying out. The growing list of victims includes tens of thousands of US businesses and government offices targeted by the new groups.
“There are at least five different clusters of activity that appear to be exploiting the vulnerabilities,” says Katie Nickels, who leads an intelligence team at the cybersecurity firm Red Canary that is investigating the hacks. When tracking cyberthreats, intelligence analysts group clusters of hacking activity by the specific techniques, tactics, procedures, machines, people, and other characteristics they observe. It’s a way to track the hacking threats they face.
Hafnium is a sophisticated Chinese hacking group that has long run cyberespionage campaigns against the United States, according to Microsoft. They are an apex predator—exactly the sort that is always followed closely by opportunistic and smart scavengers.
Activity quickly kicked into higher gear once Microsoft made their announcement on Tuesday. But exactly who these hacking groups are, what they want, and how they’re accessing these servers remain unclear. It’s possible that the original Hafnium group sold or shared their exploit code or that other hackers reverse engineered the exploits based on the fixes that Microsoft released, Nickels explains.
“The challenge is that this is all so murky and there is so much overlap,” Nickels explains. “What we’ve seen is that from when Microsoft published about Hafnium, it’s expanded beyond just Hafnium. We’ve seen activity that looks different from tactics, techniques, and procedures from what they reported on.”
As the Texas power crisis shows, our infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather
On Valentine’s Day, a rare burst of Arctic air spread across the central US and into Texas, dropping temperatures there into the single digits and nearly causing the state’s power grid to collapse. A state known for its abundant energy resources saw widespread failures of natural-gas and electricity systems that left more than four million Texans without power for days.
The proximate cause of Texas’s grid failure is now well understood. Frigid temperatures drove electricity demand to a new winter record that exceeded even the “extreme” demand scenario considered by the state’s power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Then dozens of natural-gas power plants and some wind turbines rapidly went offline, plunging the Texas grid into crisis. To prevent the whole grid from going down, ERCOT ordered utilities to initiate emergency blackouts and disconnect millions of customers.
Scientists are still working to determine whether the fast-warming Arctic is driving more frequent breakdowns of the “polar vortex,” which precipitated the Texas freeze. But we know that climate change is making extreme weather like heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding more frequent and more severe. Any of these events can push our critical infrastructure to the breaking point, as happened in Texas. How can we prepare?
Climate resilience will require investment of up to $100 billion per year globally in our infrastructure and communities. But careful planning can help our scarce resources go further.
Looking back, Texas’s troubles offer several key lessons for how to make both critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities everywhere more resilient to climate extremes.
Assessing future risks
First, it’s worth noting that grid failure alone did not lead to the intense suffering and loss of life Texas residents faced.
Natural-gas wells and gathering lines also froze, cutting gas production and supply for the state’s pipelines and power plants in half just as demand soared. Elsewhere, water treatment plants lost power, and frozen pipes caused water distribution networks to lose pressure. Frozen roadways prevented residents from traveling safely.
The connections between these infrastructure systems keep the lights on and taps flowing in good times but can compound failure when things go bad.
Extreme weather also tends to cause multiple parts of critical systems to fail at the same time. These kinds of simultaneous failures are far more probable than one might think. If 10 power plants each have a 10% chance of failure but these probabilities are all independent, the chance that they all fail simultaneously is infinitesimal (0.00000001%).
A 1% chance that 10 power plants all fail at once is far more worrisome. So building resilient infrastructure means paying close attention to extreme events that can slam large parts of the system all at once, whether that’s a winter storm, wildfire, hurricane, or flood.
Lastly, the worst human impacts of any infrastructure failure don’t come from the outage itself. They come from exposure to freezing temperatures, a lack of clean water to drink, dwindling food supplies, and the fear that help may not come soon enough. So the magnitude of suffering is determined not only by the magnitude of the infrastructure failure but also by each community’s ability to weather the storm.
Reopening US schools is complicated.
Across the country, schools are wrestling with the difficult choice of whether to reopen, and how to do it with reduced risk. In Kalamazoo, Michigan—not far from one the main sites where Pfizer is frantically manufacturing vaccines—they plan to stay virtual through the end of the school year. In Iowa, a state without a mask mandate, kids can now go back to in-person learning full time. Meanwhile, in a school district in San Mateo County, California, that borders Silicon Valley, there’s no clear decision—and low-income and affluent parents are clashing over what to do.
It’s been a difficult journey. Since March 2020, when most schools closed, districts have been asked to adjust over and over—to new science about how the virus behaves, new policy recommendations, and the different needs of families, kids, teachers, and staff.
Now, as President Biden forges ahead with his promise to reopen most schools within his first 100 days, the debates sound as complicated as ever—and offer a glimpse into many of the difficulties of reopening society at large.
The limits of “guidance”
Schools across the country have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on how to operate in the pandemic. In its latest recommendations, the CDC says a lot of the things we’ve heard all year: that everyone in a school building should wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. But schools have found that even when guidelines seem relatively straightforward on paper, they are often much harder—or downright impossible—to put into practice.
“There’s a difference between public health mitigation policies when we think them through and when we write them down, and then when we try to implement them,” says Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist in Washington, DC. “We see that there are barriers at play.”
Chapple points to a recent study by the CDC that looked at elementary schools in Georgia. After just 24 days of in-person learning, the researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked back to the school. In all, about 45 students and teachers tested positive. How did that happen? Classroom layouts and class sizes meant physical distancing wasn’t possible, so students were less than three feet apart, separated only by plastic dividers. And though students and teachers mostly wore masks, students had to eat lunch in their classrooms.
Researchers also note that teachers and students may have infected each other “during small group instruction sessions in which educators worked in close proximity to students.”
Following the CDC’s best practices might be inherently difficult, but it’s also complicated by the fact that they are just guidelines: states and other jurisdictions make the rules, and those often conflict with what the CDC says to do. Since February 15, Iowa schools have been required to offer fully in-person learning options that some school officials say make distancing impossible. Because the state no longer has a mask mandate, students aren’t required to wear masks in school.
Jurisdictions following all these different policies have one thing in common: although case totals have dipped since their peak in January, the vast majority of the US still has substantial or high community spread. A big takeaway from the CDC’s latest guidance is that high community transmission is linked to increased risk in schools.
“If we are opening schools,” Chapple says, “we are saying that there’s an acceptable amount of spread that we will take in order for children to be educated.”
Meeting different needs
Some schools are trying alternative tactics that they hope will reduce the risks associated with in-person learning.
In Sharon, a Massachusetts town just south of Boston where about 60% of public school students are still learning remotely, pods of students and staff are called down to a central location in their school building twice a week for voluntary covid-19 testing. One by one, children as young as five turn up, sanitize their hands, lower their mask, swab their own nostrils, and place their swab in a single test tube designated for their whole cohort. To make room for everyone, sometimes even the principal’s office becomes a testing site: one person in, one person out. The tubes are then sent to a lab for something called “pooled testing.”
Pooled testing allows a small group of samples to be tested for covid all at once. In Sharon, each tube holds anywhere from 5 to 25 samples. If the test for that small group comes back negative, the whole group is cleared. If it’s positive, each group member is tested until the positive individual is found. Meg Dussault, the district’s acting superintendent, says each pool test costs the school between $5 and $50, and over a third of Sharon Public Schools students and staff participate.
“I’ve seen the benefits of this,” she says “And I believe it’s essential.”
Because schools are funded unequally and largely through taxes, access to resources is a common theme in discussions of school reopening. The state paid for Sharon’s pilot period, but not every district or school has the money or staffing to mount large-scale programs—and Dussault says the district will need to foot the bill for any testing once this program ends in April. It will also need to keep relying on the goodwill of the parent volunteers who wrangle students and swabs for testing each week.
In the seven weeks since pooled testing began, Dussault says, only one batch has come back positive. It’s given her peace of mind.
And even with mitigation measures in place, there are stark demographic differences in opinion on reopening. A recent Pew study found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic adults are more likely to support holding off until teachers have access to vaccines. Those groups are also more likely than white adults to say that the risk of covid-19 transmission “should be given a lot of consideration” when weighing reopening.
Chapple worries that these parents’ concerns will be overlooked, or that funds for remote learning will dwindle because some districts decide to move to in-person learning.
She says: “School districts need to keep in mind that if they’re reopening but a small percentage of their minority students are coming back, what does that look like in terms of equity?”