President and CEO of Clearfield, providing optical-fiber management and connectivity solutions across North America.
Covid-19 exacerbated many issues, but as our safety nets became increasingly digital, it grew harder to ignore the impact of the digital divide in our country. Before the pandemic, it might have been easy for more affluent people to forget that internet access offered more than just entertainment value. Then, everything shut down to stop the spread of infection, and we were forced to enable new options in remote healthcare, distance learning and working from home. In the process, we started realizing that internet access isn’t a luxury — it's become a necessity.
The results of a recent analysis identified three common elements that contribute to creating low-income ZIP codes: paying over 30% of income for rent, less advanced education and a lack of access to the internet and high-speed broadband. At the same time, the findings of a 2021 Pew survey show that two in five American adults in homes making less than $30,000 a year have no home broadband services, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Nearly one in four have no smartphone. The digital divide is contributing to our country’s socioeconomic problems, but closing it could help fix them.
Digital Opportunities Are Growing
Access to affordable broadband internet is a game-changer for many Americans. It gives you the opportunity to progress through life with relative ease, but not having this access makes life much more difficult. Since the pandemic pushed more of our daily activities online — and seems to be keeping them there — life is only going to get harder for those without broadband.
Without access to telemedicine, remote work and educational opportunities, the digital divide will only stretch wider. Yet, options to work from home can reduce the cost of childcare and commuting. Access to online education could earn an unskilled laborer a degree or trade certificate or advance their own business. Affordable and flexible consultations with doctors through an iPad could reduce the need to spend time and money on medical visits. Access to broadband in low-income areas where it's generally lacking is the first best step to help people who are struggling.
Devices Facilitate A Better Experience
Anyone can start an online business these days, but more devices can allow you to manage digital businesses with more flexibility from anywhere and, as a result, find more opportunities for growth. With a variety of devices, tasks such as setting up websites and payment services, responding to clients and communicating with coworkers and suppliers can be handled in the office, at home or on the go. People living in low-income households without a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer, however, can't compete.
Many rural areas suffer from a lack of access to broadband services, and access to broad urban wireless networks requires people living in cities to keep up with expensive devices. With fewer educational opportunities, people in low-income areas get stuck in a cycle of entry-level jobs, and better-paid work is located far from the neighborhoods where they can afford to live. With access to reliable internet and at least one quality digital device to navigate it, however, more people can take advantage of the expanding remote job market, healthcare apps and learning opportunities from anywhere.
With Great Speed Comes Better Capabilities
More than just building out the networks to make them available, we need high-speed broadband services to be affordable. Even if they have a device and network availability, people with lower incomes still may not have enough to afford better quality service. Many of them reportedly rely on their cell phones for connectivity to avoid paying for the cost of fixed home broadband, but without the flexibility that comes with higher speeds and greater bandwidth, they're still at a disadvantage for higher-paying jobs, pay more toward in-person healthcare and miss out on educational opportunities.
Broadband as a baseline gives everyone a chance to improve their physical, financial and mental well-being. Whereas a lack of fixed broadband predicates low-income neighborhoods, access enables a more comfortable lifestyle and facilitates mobility. With this access, people in struggling American households could possibly escape the low-income cycle, bring more money into their communities and reach their full potential. By empowering more hands to contribute toward reducing our socioeconomic problems, we have a much better chance of overcoming them.
Federal incentives are crucial to building robust networks in harder-to-reach areas that will likely last us at least a decade and, fortunately, it seems the government is finally stepping up to the plate. People can now check to see if they qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program, a temporary discount on monthly broadband bills for low-income households, and Congress just passed the Affordable Connectivity Program to replace and extend that opportunity with another $14 billion. Contact your local government officials or visit the FCC site for the latest federal broadband news, and help get the information to those who need it.
Closing the digital divide will require new partnerships, complicated programs and some creativity, but if technology has taught us anything, it’s that we can be innovative and fast. Compare the average internet speeds from 10 years ago to today, and imagine the kind of future we might see 10 years from now with more people accessing even faster speeds. As broadband and fiber-based networks expand, the model will likely only improve.
To read this article on Forbes, please visit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2022/01/07/whats-causing-the-digital-divide-and-how-we-can-help-close-it/