Will the coronavirus make the digital divide worse?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Now consider issues beyond specific user groups. The U.S. will almost certainly need to introduce a “track and trace” system, using information technology, preferably with privacy safeguards. One version of this idea uses geolocation methods, which tracks where people are in physical space and sends individuals a text message if they come into close contact with others diagnosed with Covid-19.

That technology requires participants to have a smartphone. The federal government probably will not mandate smartphone usage, which would both be politically unpopular and difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, businesses are likely to turn to such schemes to increase workplace safety. But again, exactly who already owns or afford a smartphone? Some of the jobs with the closest physical contact, such as service jobs, employ relatively low paid workers.

Companies may well decide to help workers buy smartphones, perhaps with government subsidies too. But that would then make having a smartphone a job requirement, including in the retail and public sectors.

This would create a new and in some ways more serious digital divide. Imagine you want to visit your local shopping mall. Its owners might require that you subscribe to one of the Covid-19 tracing apps. Or imagine not being able to get your license renewed without a smartphone certifying your health status.

All of a sudden the U.S. will have a new segregation — between those who have smartphones and those who don’t. If you’re on the wrong side of that divide, many places and services will be hard if not impossible to reach.

And to close:

It is plausible that the U.S. could end up with 10% or more of the population exiled from many key institutions of American life — simply because they lack the right kind of technology.

Don’t get me wrong; the digital divide deserves the additional attention soon to come its way. The trick will be ensuring that any proposed solutions don’t just trade one kind of divide for another.

I can’t even figure out how to work those parking spots that are “app only” for the parking meter.  Pity me!


This isn't 1997. Cell phones have trickled down to the masses. Low paid workers have them. Most homeless Americans have them. Most Africans have them. Those kids standing on my lawn can't afford a decent pair of pants, but their phones are terrific.

If anything, the digital divide is by age, not by income.

+1. Almost 40% of people over age 65 report owning a cellphone that is not a smartphone. Under $30K/year: 23% don't own a smartphone. Can't tell from the data how much overlap there is between seniors and low income.


Implication: To maximize the effectiveness of a trace and track system, old geezers (already at highest risk) need to own and to know how to use a smartphone.

Given that there's only a small difference in smartphone ownership between racial groups (82% for white, 80% for blacks, 79% for Latino) and given the large difference in income between racial groups, it is likely that this is largely driven by age.

"But again, exactly who already owns or afford a smartphone?" Maybe Tyler should have looked up the answer to that question before making predictions about what might happen.

Some people like living on the infovore edge, and have other people do all the actual work of collecting and presenting data. Clearly, it is a revealed preference to get a paycheck for another column without needing to be concerned whether it is particularly data based or not.

We can always bring back the Obamaphone.

No, Trump has a plan.
It's a great plan.
When he is re-elected
You won't need a phone
Because you will be
In a state of
Perpetual bliss.
I promise.

It never went away. The program began under Reagan and started providing cells under Bush. As cells morphed into smartphones, data was added to the package.

“Those kids standing on my lawn can't afford a decent pair of pants, but their phones are terrific.”

Nominated for MR post of the year. It sums up the comment section better than I could imagine. Well done!!

It is a very good comment, but I disagree about it summing up the comment section; it’s much better. Incisive analysis, good humor and brevity. And no derangement.

I think Tyler's Bloomberg essays are in the can for a while before we see them.

A little while ago we might have been more optimistic about cell phones and COVID-19 tracing. But I read yesterday that it's not working out so well. Even highly touted national apps in places like Iceland have fallen short of the 60% acceptance rate needed for effectiveness. I can't find that link now.

But we can imagine how it would play out in America. We are not exactly all oars in the water, pulling together on this.

"This isn't 1997. Cell phones have trickled down to the masses." Indeed. Low-cost smartphones and service is widely available through Tracfone and other low-cost MVNOs.

About the only "digital divide" that's left is composed of those who can't or won't learn how to use one (yes, there is still a market for flipphones).

Although if tracking-by-phone becomes a mandate I'd not be surprised to see at least some users turning their phones off when not using them. Even at the cost (horrors!) of temporarily disabling all notifications and other local- and wide-area network connectivity.

And where would Google and Apple come down on this? Would they then work to ensure that the phone could be tracked no matter what, so long as it retained enough battery power to connect (or if not at least store GPS data for later transmission)?

And if so, will users then put their phones into handy Faraday-cage enclosures when they wish to be truly untrackable?

Low end android phones are $25.

80% of adults in the world have a smartphone: https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2019/5/28/the-end-of-mobile

"Low end android phones are $25."

Yup, and that's what I have. The cheapest month-to-month plan that I could find though is $35 per month. For a lot of us, that's dirt cheap. For a person on the edge, paying that monthly phone bill might mean not being able to afford rent or a car payment.

Dear God, the US is expensive for mobile phone users. My wife pays 10 GBP per month (less than 15 USD) for using her iPhone, which was itself free: a hand-me-up from a youngster.

She has the smartphone because I insisted that one of us should have one and she was the obvious candidate because she travels much more. Now of course it's "travelled".

AT&T is advertising prepaid for $15/month, including 2GB of data.

I suspect the UK may be cheaper due to population density. Reduces network development and maintenance costs.

Pew research says 81% of cellphones users have smartphones ( in Feb. 2019). It must be even higher now.

Not trying to split hairs. Simply curious on the 10% cut out from institutions. How come 10%? Whether it’s 10, 5 or 50 doesn’t change or damage the ideas laid out in the post. I’m simply curious. Would you put a range on that? Or what’s the % of people cut out now from the institutions now? How did you come up with 10%?

"But again, exactly who already owns or afford a smartphone?"
Pretty much anyone younger than 50 pretty much everywhere.

Nothing new: To stay connected
-in the 19th century one needed "access" to railways;
-in the 20th century one needed "access" to telephones and cars;
-in the 21st century one needs "access" to cell phones.

How about access to public libraries with computers, as with books [hoid of em?] from the late 19th century, to cut through these conundra?

Seems pretty easy to have a Government issued cheap basic smart phone for everyone. Would be pretty low cost if it is what allows us to get the economy back to work. Remember the Obama Phone?

The program's called "Lifeline." It's available in all states and territories. Started under Reagan, switched to cells under Bush. It's added features and more generous data plans since then.

Good? Full digitization of civic services in the long run will eliminate the "nuisance tax" inherent in acquiring most of those services. For example, imagine how much better an experience getting or renewing a passport would be with a phone app. The camera is right on the dang device!

Pity me.

Why? The people to pity are those that take anything written about technology here seriously.

I don't call them smartphones. They have a processor plus RAM plus ROM. It's just a cellphone with a touch screen. I bought some low end Samsung units for children in a poor country in 2018. They're only 50 USD so today probably 40 USD if they're not as good as Samsung. American industry doesn't want you to know about these prices.

Remember what your macroeconomics book teaches. The price of a thing is very elastic in the long run. Well the long run has arrived. The other consideration is high volumes. The price of a thing is very dependent upon volume. When you go from deciding the market is every country above 9K USD per capita and instead decide the market is 5K USD per capita, you are deciding to attempt a huge increment in volume.

The HW isn't the issue, it's the service. And the curve on that is probably relatively flat at this point (e.g., each tower has a maximum capacity, etc).

21 new cases in Australia yesterday. Possibly eradicated in the wild in one state, but it will of course take time to tell. Obviously it's not necessary for everyone to have a smartphone to eliminate the virus. But given the low cost of smart phones maybe it makes public health sense to give one to everyone without, along with enough bandwidth so it is useful enough that people will carry it around with them. No need to require them, they're just there if people want to use them.

And in the U.S., where meatpacking plants continue to go off line (in part because of a high rate of absenteeism as workers avoid getting infected) after becoming major coronavirus clusters, nobody working at such places needs a smartphone to know when 20 percent of their coworkers are infected. Or when people start dying.

It's a bit of a worry that meat packing plants don't know how to stop the spread of disease.

North American meat packing plants have this problem. The EU does not seem to be having a problem. Certainly not at the recently built local plant that delivers a major amount of this region's meat products, though it makes use of a fair amount of technology instead of exploiting cheap mass labor.

The now two decade old Fast Food Nation detailed how American meatpacking workers loved the days when the meat was intended for export to the EU - the EU import standards meant that worker standards involving meat had to follow EU rules, which were much better for worker safety. Probably irrelevant in the context of pandemic, but an example of how different North American practices are.

There is another strange thing starting to happen too. "Another problem in the beef supply, according to Bormann, is something called carcass utilization — the use of the whole animal.

“The first problem is we don’t have enough people to process the animals, and number two is they can’t do carcass balance because restaurants are down,” he said. “What’s selling? Freaking hamburger.”

Restaurants typically use the expensive stuff — strips, ribs, tenderloins and sirloin, Bormann said, while retail takes the chucks and rounds and trims. With restaurants mostly shuttered, “all of a sudden 23 percent of the animal isn’t being bought because food service is gone,” he said. washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/16/meat-processing-plants-are-closing-due-covid-19-outbreaks-beef-shortfalls-may-follow/

If it's not video the bandwidth required is trivial. That's another thing American industry doesn't want you to know. Limit program updates to 3AM in the morning at a very low speed and limit it to only once per month unless it's a security patch.

“It’s creepy that the government is teaming up with telecommunications companies to track our phones,” said a flight attendant in Taipei who was put under 14-day quarantine after returning from Europe in mid-March.

The woman, who identified herself as Xiaomei, said she was scolded by a local administrator after failing to pick up a check-in phone call in the morning when she was asleep.

“They said the police will come to me if I missed another phone call,” she said. “I’m treated like a prisoner.”

Quarantine violators can be fined up to T$1 million ($32,955).

That's how Taiwan did it. This should not fly in America but I can appreciate the efforts of others elsewhere to combat this pandemic.


That isn't high tech. You have someone under quarantine and the health department calls them to confirm they are following the rules. You could have pulled that story from 1950 if you left out the cell phone.

Government phones? Does anyone remember Elvis Costello's glasses? When my sister (NROTC) started doing active duty things she heard about "Navy Birth Control" glasses - but within a few years there was a problem with sailors getting multiple frames and reselling them as fashion frames. Markets are funny

To sign up for a biometric tracking device.

The real digital divide is not the cellphone. The divide materializes if you need to video your boss or the child needs video for homework. If we do this with wired internet (to WiFi and ethernet) then you need a service of perhaps more than 3 Mbps for as many hours as the child needs. The adult will need less than the child because nobody spends much time looking at their boss. If the adult needs cellular service away from home this should be paid for by the employer much like they pay for heat and air conditioning if the adult works in an office. If anybody needs cellular service because of virus control it should just be free like calling the police.

Nothing sadder than seeing inept boomer concern trolling.

The federal government probably will not mandate smartphone usage, which would both be politically unpopular and difficult to enforce.

Not even that gutless wonder Roberts agreed that the Commerce Clause permits the federal government force people to buy health insurance (or eat broccoli). What sort of federal "tax penalty" could be dreamt up to get people to comply to actually use a smartphone app? (State governments would have a much better shot.)

Interstate commerce is sufficient. The gov't could close down borders between states if it had too.

How is interstate commerce sufficient to mandate owning a smartphone and using a health app?

The feds force the States to enact legislation on threat of loosing their share of [bailout money], and the commerce clause doesn't limit the States.

Interstate commerce says the Fed can shutdown commerce between the states as much as support it. Early on the clause was used to take down barriers to interstate trade (such as NY-NJ trying to grant monopolies on ferries over the Hudson) but it could just as easily be used to limit travel from plague states to less plague ones.

In China any Muslim not presently carrying a smartphone is a suspect.

Even feature (dumb) phones have the GPS and bluetooth necessary for these approaches. These are not features out of reach of any American.

You can get an android smartphone for $50.

Why do we need to bend over backwards to accommodate obstinate technophobic boomers? Adapt, or cry me a river. You don't need an iPhone; a decent smartphone costs 100 bucks.

Taleb described it well in his piece: The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority.

Chinese retirees have no problems chatting via WeChat, sharing digital hongbaos, scanning QR codes, etc...

Let's be real here. The digital divide is a worse issue in countries like Japan. If there are people who don't have smartphones, it's not the average low-paid American working a service job, it's the 60 year old Japanese manager. Most people can't even telework because they still use stamps on real paper!!


That was quick: from tracking as an invasion of privacy to tracking as a right (of the person being tracked). If being tracked is a right, why not put an ankle bracelet on everyone both to guarantee the right and to prevent evasion not only by the 10% but by the libertarian holdouts. I have come to the conclusion that people like being manipulated. It explains Trump followers; it explains social media; it explains blogs; it explains Rene Girard's explanation.

I think more technologically inept boomers there are the better. That way we can prolong the inevitable government mandated smartphones preferably until after I die.

Zoomers all want us dragged into digital GULAGs only to watch memes on TikTok.

I don't see a digital divide, I see priming:

"The U.S. will almost certainly need to introduce a “track and trace” system, using information technology, preferably with privacy safeguards."

And you, and you, and you too to give him data. Data being the stuff that dream contracts are made of.

"Imagine you want to visit your local shopping mall. Its owners might require that you subscribe to one of the Covid-19 tracing apps. "

I'd rather not install just any app on my device. They are often poorly programmed with bugs or they actively try to steal your data. It's not worth the risk.

"In the meantime, however, there is likely to be even greater discrimination against those who don’t have them. "

Ironically, it will be the other way around when they use the information they have on you against you. The issues of technology and privacy are still being debated.

The smartphone monitoring won't be restricted to pandemic issues. It will be another layer on keeping track of those failing background checks and having credit problems. It will also be tied into autonomous vehicle contracts. Those who can't or won't use them will become social pariahs like the lowliest of the homeless are now. A person without a smart phone won't be employable, have access to rental housing, or function at any level in a cashless society.

A significant benefit of the smart phone society would be 24/7 public video access to all government offices and employees. That won't happen and will be the foundation of the societal divide, who is subject to random surveillance and who is not.

Kaszynski was right. Now we are dependent on smartphones, next we will be dependent on genetic engineering. gg guys.

Could someone articulate exactly what the phone is doing? Most people aren't using smart watches, but they don't take your temperature. So a phone is not going to be able to capture your temperature.

So then what does the phone do? Ask you for your symptoms each day? Demonstrate that you did properly quarantine yourself for 14 days if you were ordered? Contact tracing?

Does this work at the individual level or the population level? On the population level you may not need anything new because just sampling is sufficient. Look at the NYT article about the cell phone pings from Spring Breakers in Florida and where they went after. It isn't necessary to have absolutely every cell phone for every person who hit the beach. You only have to look at the data of the sample (basically Florida f'd the entire South).

(basically Florida f'd the entire South)

At least Florida got paid for it.

So on the individual level what exactly can the smart phone do? Assume we have no privacy or limits on gov't concerns. For example, let's say I test positive. My GPS could be pulled for the last two weeks. If I was at Starbucks on Thursday at 4PM, does everyone who went to that Starbucks since then get a text message to get tested?

Why do I think what China is doing is a bit less dramatic than the Black Mirror episode we are imagining? I could imagine an 'app' that simply asks some questions like "do you feel sick today?" "did you interact with anyone who was sick?". Then some low level official in the Chinese Communist Party reports to his bosses he's using 'digital innovation' to help track the virus.

They don't need to pull your GPS records. Your smartphone constantly pings towers and the towers can triangulate your location from that signal.

Today it's track & trace for health reasons (pffft…) but tomorrow it will be for much more sinister purposes... 5G is being implemented worldwide but not due to superiority of transmitting a phone call.... What you are seeing on TV re being able to locate you, facial recognition & whatever is req'd to separate US/THEM... get used to it...

In my favorite Outer Limits the aliens plot to demoralize Earth -- by simply giving us the technology to spy on each other. Sixty years later that prediction's looking pretty solid.

Boomers could go back to the day when we didn’t have smartphones and leave them at home.

I can see some tension developing over this and other coronavirus outcomes. Immunity passports will lead to explicit (and state sanctioned) discrimination in many areas of life which runs counter to many anti-discrimination trends in the US. not having immunity becomes a sort of disability which may lead to ADA considerations. The digital divide issue will similarly lead to another type discrimination. There is going to be some overlap between people who strongly support immunity passports and digital tracking and people who advocate for the disenfranchised. That is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for those people as they try to reconcile often competing goals.

The ADA simply requires reasonable accommodations to a disability. If someone doesn't have immunity and that is considered a disability an accommodation could simply be providing a mask.

Cost of cheap android phone: $50

Cost of one week isolation: $30B+

Solution seems obvious.

If someone diagnosed with COVID-19 are they forever "unclean"? Because if you are diagnosed, you will rightly be directed to quarantine. And for the duration of the quarantine, it would not be that wrong to track that person's phone to see they are in fact quarantining.

No need to send messages to all those around them, send the message to the health department who will contact the police.

Right now, non-intrusive cell phone tracking might be for the towers to report large groups that remain in contact for a significant amount of time. No need for personal data unless there is positive virus test for one of the group but the phone companies already retain this data for a period of time.

But unless you will be deemed now and forever, be of the "unclean" had COVID-19 caste, I'm unsure about the utility of tracking it. And really, it will be those who have not had the virus who will pose the most risk, assuming having the virus gives a lasting immunity.

In a couple years, this will not be any worse than a flu variant they miss in the annual vaccine and if a vaccine proves effective, it will be no different than the annual flu. SARS 2.0 is only an issue now because we don't have widespread immunity, effective therapeutics and/or a vaccine. Thus it is a pandemic, just like when we get an influenza variant that is new to humans, it can become a pandemic for a few years.

You don't need tracking to do this. It could be as simple as someone is directed to quarantine, they are spot checked by a request to have their phone share their location. They hit a button and phone registers at their home, that's it.

A likely apocryphal story of someone whom the government was listening in on their phone calls so they cancelled their phone service. But their phone never was cut off, just the bill stopped because the FBI or whoever, wouldn't let the phone company cut off the phone

Just don't buy a smart phone and if they want to track you, they'll have to give you one.

Digital tracking was coming anyway. The pandemic just accelerated it.

The US just issued everyone a $1200 paycheck, but can't subsidize a $250 phone for everyone who doesn't have one? Seriously?

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