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Closing the Digital Divide, One Laptop at a Time

Congress passed the COVS Act in December, giving government laptops and devices a new life to help students, veterans, and their families.

Teacher and student looking at a laptop

What should the federal government do with its old computers? (A) Put them in a warehouse to collect dust, or (B) refurbish them and give them to people in need? If you answered (B), then Congress and President Biden have good news for you.

On Dec. 29, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Computers for Veterans and Students Act (COVS), an important priority in Common Sense's campaign to close the digital divide. COVS allows the federal government to donate out-of-service computers to nonprofit refurbishers who will repair and distribute them to veterans, students, and those who would otherwise be unable to afford them. Currently, the lack of affordable, high-quality computers is one of the leading causes of the digital divide (14 million U.S. households currently lack a computer), and so the COVS Act is a much-needed update to federal policy.

Common Sense has been advocating for this bill since it was first introduced, and we're excited to see it become a reality (thanks, Rep. Spanberger!). This new law is a no-brainer: recycle used-but-still-useful computers by giving them to people in need (at essentially no cost to the government). Here are three ways COVS helps to close the digital divide:

COVS addresses a pressing need.
At least 10 million U.S. students do not own a device suitable for learning, and nearly 40% of lower-income U.S. households do not have a computer, limiting their ability to access critical online services.

COVS expands the supply of affordable devices.
New computers are expensive, especially given the global chip shortage and increased demand sparked by the pandemic. Refurbished computers are an affordable alternative, but the pool of refurbishable devices is limited and inconsistent, since it typically relies on corporate donations, customer returns, and recycled e-waste. The COVS Act will unlock the enormous reservoir of devices used by the federal government, steadily adding hundreds of thousands of devices to the available supply.

COVS maximizes the use of technology.
Digital inclusion is about more than giving people devices and internet service; it also means training people to use those technologies. That's why the COVS Act requires computer refurbishers and distributors to provide digital skills and literacy training. This way, when a person receives a refurbished device, they will also be shown basic skills to take full advantage of it. Training can include things like troubleshooting, using video chat, tutorials on telehealth, overviews of online educational tools, and lessons about privacy and cybersecurity.

The COVS Act is important, but of course it's just one piece of the digital equity puzzle. Other programs, like the Emergency Connectivity Fund, the Affordable Connectivity Program, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, all of which we strongly supported, are necessary to holistically address the digital divide. We're working hard to ensure that all of these programs are carried out in harmony so that no one is left offline and that every family in every community can take advantage of the devices and training that the COVS Act provides—and that everyone in today's modern digital world needs.

Drew Garner, state broadband policy adviser, contributed to this post.

Amina Fazlullah

Amina Fazlullah is the Senior Director Equity Policy at Common Sense. Her work focuses on expanding access to technology and digital well-being advocacy. Prior to joining Common Sense, Amina was a Tech Policy Fellow at Mozilla, where she worked to promote broadband connectivity in underserved communities around the world. Amina has also worked with the Benton Foundation, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for the Honorable Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, and at the FCC.