Bridging the digital divide has never been more critical

Bridging the digital divide has never been more critical
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As Americans continue to persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic while simultaneously confronting a deep recession and persistent social injustice, we need to come to grips with one of the challenges these convergent crises have brought into bold relief: the digital divide. 

High-speed broadband has been a savior for so many of us in this time of need. Those of us on one side of the divide have been able to Zoom with loved ones, video connect into virtual classrooms and FaceTime with friends. Online businesses preserved jobs and maintained operations. Connected smartphone users bore witness to persistent racism in the administration of justice, with viral videos broadening awareness of the need for real change.

For those on the other side, however, lack of broadband connectivity has rendered their isolation in even more stark relief.

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The crises of 2020 are changing the face of the American economy and society, and the long-term impacts could be profound. Sadly, many businesses, especially those that depended on foot traffic or an in-person experience, continue to struggle and may never reopen. Students lacking connectivity may fall further behind. Offline individuals cannot access the relief programs and health information intended to help them survive these troubled times.

Government officials are grappling with ways to expand opportunities for more citizens even as declining tax revenues make it increasingly difficult to meet all needs. For us to bounce back from these events and emerge stronger and more resilient as a nation, lawmakers need to encourage more investment in the broadband connectivity that is making such a positive difference to the “haves.”

Money spent getting high-speed internet into more people’s hands is money well spent. Every dollar invested in broadband returns nearly four dollars to the economy, according to a Purdue University study.

For example, Purdue’s economists say that Indiana could reap nearly $12 billion in present value of net economic benefits over a 20-year period by investing now to extend broadband internet into the state’s rural areas. As a bonus, the Boilermaker economists found that investment in rural broadband would grow state and federal coffers, because income and sales tax revenues would increase. Telemedicine health care savings additionally could reduce the costs of the Medicaid and Medicare programs.

While the economists at Purdue focused on Indiana, similar benefits are likely to accrue to other rural areas of the country. Fewer than 78 percent of rural Americans have access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC estimates that 18 million people lack broadband access, but availability isn’t the only problem. Especially in urban areas, some people simply cannot afford service.

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In addition to expanding the reach of networks, we must focus on the cost issue. Broadband is surely an essential need for all Americans in the 21st century. Just as we help those who cannot afford food, housing or medical care to access these necessities, so should we ensure that online opportunities extend to those living on the economic edge.

Policymakers understand the internet’s importance and reach during the pandemic. Under the leadership of the FCC, telecom companies promised early on to maintain service to customers unable to pay their bills. The agency also made it easier to participate in the Lifeline communications subsidy program for the poor and distributed billions approved by Congress to expand telehealth.

While there is much that Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on, they share a conviction in the criticality of broadband to economic recovery. Both parties have declared their commitment to reducing the digital divide, with myriad proposals before Congress in potential COVID-19 recovery legislation, infrastructure modernization bills and stand-alone telecom proposals.  

But we’re battling the clock. Families and businesses lacking broadband needed connectivity yesterday. Lack of ubiquitous broadband access undermines future economic recovery, and that hurts everyone. American students start returning to schools this month, and for many the experience will be partially or fully online, if they have connectivity. 

We failed in many ways to prepare for the events of 2020. The risks were foreseen, the remedies understood. But great nations are defined both by challenges avoided and challenges overcome. America majors in comebacks. Despite this year’s setbacks, we have the opportunity to form a more perfect union, to set ourselves and future generations up for more robust and inclusive growth. Policymakers can take a critical step on that journey this year — immediately, in fact. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

Bruce Mehlman served as assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy and is a founding co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance.