The Tech Policy Greenhouse is an online symposium where experts tackle the most difficult policy challenges facing innovation and technology today. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, where every decision involves tradeoffs and unintended consequences, so we've gathered a wide variety of voices to help dissect existing policy proposals and better inform new ones.

The Enormous Cost Of Digital Inequality

from the everybody's-problem dept

Both unintentionally and by design, we have reinforced a digital caste system that continues to divide communities into the “haves” and “have-nots.” What still remains unclear is not whether we can reverse engineer the disparate impact, but whether we, as a nation, believe that every resident in every community deserves equal access to a digital society.

It is hard to argue with the facts. While remote learning mandates remain in place, six in ten low-income students have to attend online classes via cell phone or search for a public WiFi access point, while others have simply disappeared from their class rosters because they do not have a device to get online. Approximately half of Americans living on Tribal lands and one-third of those living in rural areas still do not have reliable connections. Their job opportunities, online businesses, and remote access to health care have suffered accordingly.

Roughly one-third of African American and Hispanic households struggle with digital access, adoption, and literacy. Deutsche Bank estimates that “76% of Blacks and 62% of Hispanics could get shut out or be underprepared for 86% of jobs in the US by 2045.” Meanwhile, over forty percent of adults at or below the poverty line do not have reliable broadband of any kind.

This is everyone’s problem. And how we arrived here is less mysterious than it seems.

Since the National Broadband Plan was introduced in 2010, we have learned that when the market rewards providers with profits and control, they will come. However, relying on market forces alone cannot ensure that every community has access to broadband, a vital public good as important as electricity or clean water.

Federal policy designed to support broadband deployment strategies were based on the assumption that local and state entities would carry the mantle on increasing adoption. But, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, local and state governments are strapped for resources. Even if they are able to scrape together investments for digital infrastructure and adoption programs, few have adequate resources to do both well.

The digital divide has been relentless and unforgiving in the most under resourced communities, which have concurrently had to combat the threats from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, and food insecurity. Ironically, being able to get online remains most elusive for those in the greatest need of digital pathways out of poverty.

The internet has increasingly become the public square just as high-speed connectivity has become the lifeblood of our economy. In a post-COVID landscape, when Americans need broadband to work and learn from home and medical attention requires making an appointment online, access impacts our quality of life. It also determines who and how households will recover from the pandemic and its economic fallout.

What’s more, the internet has introduced once unimaginable possibilities for the most disenfranchised voices among us. Standing Rock. Flint. Minneapolis. These movements are a part of our lexicon, in part, because organizers had access to a universal platform, then dared the nation to collectively say her name – equality.

We need a plan, the kind that reaches every corner of the U.S. We need a nationwide strategy for broadband access that recognizes the importance of high-performance digital infrastructure and supports widespread adoption.

Above all, this needs to be a priority for every level of government, working together to encourage interagency participation and public-private partnerships that fuel innovation. Otherwise, we will continue to miss out on the productivity and imagination of the millions struggling with access.

Francella Ochillo is an attorney and digital rights advocate who has worked on a variety of technology and telecommunications issues. Her work often highlights how policy proposals impact unserved and underserved communities.

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Comments on “The Enormous Cost Of Digital Inequality”

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virusdetected (profile) says:

Too many states have passed into law restrictions on communities developing their own ISP. These were generally the work of AT&T lobbyists who made generous campaign donations to the legislators willing to hamstring their constituents. Removing those restrictions may help extend broadband further. Low-orbit satellite may provide some of the more remote locations with service, but the cost to the end user is high. We managed to get telephone service to almost every residence in the country; we just lack the commitment to do the same with broadband. Unfortunately, the current political divide in this country will undermine any attempt to extend coverage, and that highly-polarized situation is unlikely to change any time soon!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TheForumTroll (profile) says:

Look above the wall and outside the borders

I know this will sound like pure socialism to most Americans but I’ll write it anyways. My point with all this is at the end 🙂

Where I live (somewhere grey and cold in Scandinavia) the broadband (fiber to be precise) is seen as the same as the other utilities (water, sewer, electricity, heat), so the local utility company rolls out fiber either on its own or when they dig anyway. Everywhere gets fiber or empty cables if nothing/no-one is there yet and it doesn’t cost anything to get fiber from the road and into your house (free from road to nearest wall + a few meters). The company is owned by the city and citizens run it (you get voted in). It is 100% non-profit so the prize for the roll-out of fiber is covered by the excess profit from the other utilities and no-one is paied huge bonuses. Other companies can supply internet-access on the network so it is not only the best but also the cheapest network around.

Of course it isn’t perfect but slowly everyone gets access to broadband at a good price. You cannot compare prices directly from one country to another with the different taxes and all but if interested I pay US$45 for 1/1gigabit, (actual) unlimited, two IPv4 + IPv6, speed is guaranteed – not "up to".

My point with all this is simple: Where are the American politicians that want to Make America Great Again like Back In The Good Old Days? On the one hand the US is The Greatest Nation but on the other hand I keep reading stories about people like McDonald Trump and Ajit Pai.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Look above the wall and outside the borders

Fully agree – but looking at the numbers in the federal budget, it is interesting to see how the discretionary spending as a % has been shrinking on all sectors except military for the last few decades. In other words, either you invest in infrastructure (european way) or you invest in worldwide military dominance (usa way). There is no money for both – unless you cut on healthcare, retirements, or number of federal employees (schools etc), or you run even higher deficits (have the fed cover it).

Rick O'Shae says:

Self-delusion is very unbecoming.

Rant warning.

Come on man. Think.

If the internet remains intact and open, how on earth can the millionaire fascist crooks in power exploit the masses properly and make off with the American Treasury.

Currently, many of the peasants can talk to each other and the world and compare notes and effectively educate themselves to what is really going on, via the Internet. Those peasants with a connection can tell those without a connection what is going on. The internet makes fake news very difficult to sell, which in turn makes it tough for fascists to control the message.

T-Rump supporters – mega-corps and millionaires and wannabes – want the lack of broadband to grow and the uneven playground to become more uneven, so they can reap more monetary profits from the public and control the message through simple deceit, misinformation, bullshit for news and legislation- manipulation and re-interpretation behind the scenes.

How can they lie effectively when they can be fact-checked in seconds by millions of people and have their bullshit exposed to the world in minutes online. In order for the fascists to succeed, they MUST be in control of the media AND the message, and the internet is truly cramping their style and costing them a ton of money.

In the minds of the fascists, the Internet must be destroyed and replaced with a non-anonymous, controlled, commercial advertisement and entertainment-only display medium. Like Television. And nothing shall stand in the way of their success.

Either get used to it, or do something about it. It matters not how tall the walls of your city are, when the enemy is on your side of the gates. Hell, they own the fucking gates and they are winning the war. Wake the fuck up, or kiss your democracy, your future and your nation goodbye.

By the way, the reason all of your cops and government officials seem to be wantonly breaking the law, is simple. The Government has secretly declared war and is now running under war-time rules and that lets them legally break any law they damn well please with complete immunity from prosecution and absolutely no need whatsoever to tell the public what they are up to.

After all, the public is the enemy in this war – Terrorists are civilians , Drug Dealers are civilians. Child Porn Makers, Buyers and Distributors are all civilians. All of the War On Stuff victims are civilians. Why the hell do you think Trump and his gang want to find and destroy the Antifa movement…

And remember, fascism always wins, specifically because the public cannot believe their own leaders and most successful fellow-citizens would turn on them, steal their belongings and bankrupt their nation.

Good luck America.
You are really gonna need it.

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