Closing the Digital Divide Will Advance Equity
The current national discussion on racial inequality was kicked off by law enforcement issues, but it is rooted in broader, structural inequalities in our institutions and in our access to the American Dream. The ultimate American Dream is to achieve our individual potential and to create opportunities for ourselves, and a better life for our children. But we will never achieve that dream as a nation, or realize our collective potential, until the path to opportunity is open to every American.
COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of many technologically driven changes to how we live and work that were already underway. In doing so, the pandemic has shined a bright light on the structural inequalities at play in the transition to a high-tech economy. Too many Americans — 21 million, or 1 out of every 12 of us — are being left behind, as nearly 50% of work and nearly 100% of education has gone online during the pandemic. Broadband access is not merely about Netflix and online shopping: it is the gateway to opportunity.
For the wealthiest and most advanced nation on the planet, this digital divide is utterly unacceptable. We have treated internet access as a luxury, when in fact it has become a utility to which universal access is essential. We must invest in the digital infrastructure that enables every American to participate in our economy.
The unequal distribution of internet access, unfortunately, perpetuates many of the structural inequalities with which our nation is currently wrestling. There are multiple facets to internet access issues, including an inability for many families to afford internet access even when it exists, and, in underserved communities a lack of physical infrastructure to access the internet altogether, or substandard infrastructure that doesn’t support connectivity at the needed speed of learning and work.
One of our nation’s tragic legacies is that of redlining, a practice whereby the financial and real estate industries colluded to exclude African Americans from moving into certain areas, thereby enacting segregated schools and neighborhoods even without official policies of segregation. Digital redlining may not operate on the same discriminatory intentions, but it has similar effects: those who lack digital access are disproportionately likely to be people of color. Research from The Third Way has shown that communities which are majority Black are significantly less likely to have broadband access than communities which are majority white. The current status quo is one of unequal access to economic and educational opportunities.
To attack this status quo, there must first be national recognition of the problem and an understanding that providing digital access to the digital have-nots benefits every American. And with nearly 40 million unemployed, the need to connect with education, training, and jobs has never been more urgent.
As the discussion begins over the investment of more than $1 trillion into infrastructure as a stimulus to jump start our economy, it is easy for our minds to envision funding roads and bridges, as those have been the infrastructure investments of the past. But this time policymakers should start the process with a technology-first paradigm. The best infrastructures that we can build at this moment in our history are a bridge over the deepening digital divide and on-ramps to the information superhighway for millions of Americans with no access to the American Dream.
It is encouraging that 5G access is being included in initial infrastructure proposals, but it must not only remain in any legislation that he signs into law, it must also become a bigger part of what we consider infrastructure. For millions of Americans, this access would enable for the first time the ability to learn and compete in the workforce; and for businesses, it would open up new markets and a new supply of eager employees. State and federal governments also need to address policies and explore partnerships that can facilitate the provision of broadband access for every American.
Technology has served as one of the greatest uniting innovations in history, as it has connected the world in ways never before imagined. But as technology has advanced the lives of most Americans, as well as our economy, unequal digital access has widened disparities in access to opportunity. If unaddressed, this divide will grow deeper, as this disadvantage is built in as a generational reality for far too many Americans. This is not just a problem for those individuals: this is a national problem. As long as we fail to tap into the full potential of our workforce, the more our country will face a competitive disadvantage internationally. Digital access is the pathway to opportunity in the 21st century. It must be open to every American.