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Are you part of the digital divide?

Are you part of the digital divide?
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People across the East Coast were having trouble this week accessing core internet services, just as they were logging on for work and school. The culprit of the outage turned out to be a fiber tear in Brooklyn, New York, affecting Verizon users miles and states away. Users reported trouble loading Gmail, Slack, Zoom and other services being used especially during the pandemic by those working from home.

I confess to being one of the complainers. Until I remembered that rather than moan about slow service and bumpy internet connections, I ought to focus on the decades-old digital divide that puts some of us in the fortunate position of having internet service while others in the country struggle with no broadband access. That is just wrong.

Once again, our society is confronting the yawning gaps in our critical infrastructure where parts of the country are quickly sending messages from home via Facebook and Instagram while other regions have students looking for parking lot signals to log on to for school. In an internet-addicted society, the wealthy are over reliant on technology while people of middle- and lower-incomes are under-funded on technology. One group is angry about being locked out of their web enabled apartment systems while another group can’t get basic data and a decent signal.

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The pandemic has only worsened the digital divide. The gap, like so many gaps in society from health care to education, explains some of the nation’s widespread anger, disillusionment and political polarization. The tech gap also leaves many vulnerable to cyberattacks from hostile nations looking to take advantage of our systemic weaknesses.

For years we have known that high-speed internet access is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education and civic engagement, and that urban areas have far more access. It is not new to say there are too many Wifi dead zones in America where about 15 million K-12 students live in households without adequate online connectivity, according to a 2018 study of federal data by Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit that tracks children’s media use. What is new is the urgency of the moment.

The Trump administration did little to address the digital divide. The Biden administration and the new Congress have an opportunity to do better.

How?

The answers to narrowing parts of the digital divide are laid out in a study done by the New Center, a think tank focused on bipartisan solutions. On broadband access the study suggests:

  1. Expand the Lifelong program — a federal program that provides discounted phone and internet service to low-income Americans. Life-long learning is a key to American prosperity.
  1. Increase funding of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to purchase more mobile hotspots for schools and libraries. 
  1. Go beyond the ReConnect program, which issues grants and loans to fund the costs of connectivity, to long-term investments in infrastructure.

The digital divide is real. And we need to act with the speed of the best of our internet technology. Some of the most urgent issues will be addressed by the new administration within executive orders and within the stimulus proposals addressing schools. But others will require congressional action to improve access and affordability in hard-to-reach rural areas. This is a time to work together, stay connected and make the longer-term investments in infrastructure that will move our country forward.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.