Pursuing Equity in the Digital Divide for Black University Students

“How Equinix and Equinix Foundation are helping to advance digital inclusion for students at Nashville’s Fisk University”

Digital inclusion has become an increasingly critical issue as the pandemic brought greater visibility to disparities in internet access. With more aspects of life requiring access to the internet—everything from healthcare and education to business and government services—the disadvantages caused by the digital divide and inequitable access have only deepened. Moreover, internet connectivity and digital skills have become fundamental to getting a quality education and being eligible for many of today’s job opportunities. And yet, one-third of the world’s population—2.7 billion people—remains offline.   

In the United States, historically marginalized communities are further disadvantaged by lack of high-speed internet access. The digital divide disproportionately affects Black Americans: 38% of Black households lack high-speed fixed broadband (compared to 23% of white households), 31% don’t own a computer and 50% lack the necessary digital skills to thrive in society. Public infrastructure today doesn’t adequately serve Black communities. 

Inequitable access to technology and connectivity has also impacted historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)in the U.S. HBCUs often have substandard digital and IT infrastructure that’s prohibitive to the best possible learning environment. To address this, organizations like Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and #BlackTechFutures Research Institute are collaborating with Equinix and the Equinix Foundation to address funding for IT infrastructure and research, tech education and bridging the gap in racial tech disparity. And we’re inviting other companies and corporate philanthropies to join us in addressing this critical and relatively underfunded area of need. 


How the digital divide perpetuates inequities 

The link between digital inequity and social and economic inequalities is pronounced, and yet there’s still much work to do—globally and locally—to address the digital divide.  

The concept of “digital redlining” articulates the real underinvestment in digital infrastructure for lower-income communities, particularly communities of color. According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), digital redlining “has disparate impacts on people in certain areas of cities or regions, most frequently on the basis of income, race, and ethnicity.”v This idea explains why historically marginalized communities are more likely to experience lower internet speeds at higher costs. And these disparities extend even to institutions of higher learning in historically marginalized communities, such as Fisk University, where digital access is essential.  

Expanding reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband access is essential to ensure that underserved communities and educational institutions have equal access. Governments, private companies and community organizations have launched many initiatives to tackle the digital divide and racial tech disparities in the United States, but as the numbers show, there’s still a long way to go. Not enough of the existing initiatives put the needs of the entire Black community at the core. To move forward, business, educational institutions, government and private philanthropy must work together with technical experts and the next generation of leaders. We all have an important role to play. 

Connectivity challenges at Nashville’s Fisk University 

Fisk University—one of the nation’s elite HBCUs, and the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville—has been a victim of the digital divide, like many minority-serving institutions across the U.S. In addition to receiving Forbes’ #1 ranking among all U.S. universities for academic effectiveness, Fisk University has yielded distinguished alumni, Rhodes scholar finalists, record starting salaries and student outcomes rivalling the top institutions in the country. And yet, the university—and the surrounding community—lacks the bandwidth needed for the best learning and career opportunities. Low bandwidth and wireless infrastructure failures frequently disrupt students’ education and prohibit an effective learning environment. 

Students and faculty describe a range of interruptions in their learning: 

  • Slow, unstable internet connection in dorm rooms  
  • Being limited to working in the library and one lecture hall, where Wi-Fi connection is strongest 
  • Internet service disruptions during critical events like online exams and internship or job interviews  
  • Instructor frustrations and class cancellations due to connectivity problems  
  • Having to pay out of pocket for personal hotspots for reliable connectivity for online learning 

These problems are unconscionable at a time when digital access is so critical for academic and career success. Fisk University and other HBCUs play an important role in creating digital leaders of the future and addressing racial disparities in the tech industry. In fact, the Fisk University Data Science program is the first dedicated undergraduate data science program at an HBCU as well as in the state of Tennessee.vi Addressing digital redlining and creating strong digital infrastructure to support effective learning at Fisk and other HBCUs is a necessity.  

How Equinix and Fisk University are working together 

To maximize the potential of the digital economy, it’s obvious that entire segments of the population can’t be left behind—including students who’ve proven ready to lead in our collective digital-first economy. The tech industry has an important role to play in supporting better investment in internet connectivity for minority-serving institutions.  

Equinix began our relationship with Fisk University in 2020 with an internship program. We were blown away by the caliber of talent joining us as interns, and we decided to further the relationship by teaching courses on development for Fisk students. When we got to campus, we met some of the best students this nation has to offer. But we were shocked to find that just two miles from the famous Broadway Street and downtown Nashville, at an institution of higher learning where future leaders’ minds are being shaped, there wasn’t enough bandwidth to complete a video call.  

Equinix and the Equinix Foundation are working to create a more digitally inclusive future by partnering with Fisk University to help bridge the digital divide and provide students the best opportunities to excel in a high-tech world. With this partnership, we’ve taken a holistic approach to meeting multiple areas of need, including the following initiatives: 

  • Equinix-sponsored classes on front-end development and full-stack development for students at Fisk University, along with volunteer support from Equinix employees for peer mentoring and tutoring for students  
  • An internship program for Fisk students at Equinix, as well as a hiring path to Equinix for students and interns 
  • A four-year commitment by Equinix Foundation totaling $1 million to fund Fisk University’s technology infrastructure modernization plan 

Fisk students and interns at Equinix have consistently demonstrated an enthusiasm for learning, collaborating and having fun while they acquire technical expertise. And they’re contributing back to Equinix as interns and employees, as well as to the future of the tech industry. We’re excited and proud to invest in the university’s technology foundation—which will benefit all students and create a more effective learning environment. 

Our commitment to advancing digital inclusion 

Equinix Foundation is also awarding a two-year grant to the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute to continue its work using data, policy and programming to create and strengthen the collective Black tech future. #BlackTechFutures Research Institute is building a national network of city-based researchers and practitioners conducting research on sustainable local black tech ecosystems. The outcomes of this work are actionable policy recommendations and a national public data archive. 

These initiatives with Fisk University and #BlackTechFutures Research Institute are a continuation of the work of Equinix and Equinix Foundation to help bridge the digital divide. For example, earlier this year, we shared that Equinix is offering free internet access for ISPs in three states to serve disadvantaged communities as part of our signatory partnership with the CEO Action for Racial Equity Fellowship. And the Equinix Foundation recently announced a three-year grant to World Pulse to support their work accelerating digital inclusion for women and girls globally.  

How tech industry leaders can join in solving this challenge 

Our commitment to Fisk University, #BlackTechFutures and other organizations is rooted in a holistic trust-based approach to philanthropy that involves collaborating and partnering with organizations to address multiple areas of need. 

But more resources are needed to address the digital divide for Black communities and students in the U.S. We invite other tech companies, partners, nonprofits and employees to join Equinix and the Equinix Foundation in solving this problem together. If you’re looking for ways to get more involved in creating a more digitally inclusive future, contact Equinix Foundation. 

And to learn more about Equinix Foundation, visit our website