Stay home and stay connected. Such has been the mantra of public health officials over the past several months. For most of us this has meant an even greater tethering to digital services that have enabled continuity of access to news, entertainment, work, and learning. But for the 21 million Americans who continue to lack meaningful access to the internet—including 14.5 million who have no access at all—Covid-19 has perpetuated a reality that predates the pandemic: an inability to participate in the increasingly digital reality of commerce, education, and work.
Despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world in the most prolific information age, nine million American children have completely lacked the means and opportunity to learn at home, further widening an already troubling gap between them and their digitally connected peers. Some rural school districts have resorted to using school buses as makeshift hot spots, locating them near residents or in parks to allow students to sit in cars and receive instruction through shared Wi-Fi.
Talent is universal. Access to the internet is not. Our current infrastructure stops tragically short of enabling all Americans to tap into their potential: digital pathways to opportunity which are now well-trodden by many are altogether impassable by others. In an era where broadband is prerequisite to accessing higher education and many of the fastest growing job fields, the digital divide is limiting the development of our workforce and amplifying inequality.
The economic and moral costs of this problem are being recognized by the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, led by Ivanka Trump and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, which has convened some of the biggest employers, educators, and technology providers in the world to support the development of a digital infrastructure. This coming together of national leaders to extend the reach of prosperity into the most rural and disconnected among us shares the same underpinnings of the call for a national highway system in the mid-1950s by President Eisenhower.
In his 1955 State of the Union Address, Eisenhower called the creation of a highway system “essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.” This system was intended to enable all Americans to participate in our economy and provide opportunity to those in both urban and rural communities, and ultimately served as a great negator of economic disadvantage and equalizer of access to the American Dream.
The parallels between the need for a national highway system and universal access to the internet are obvious. But in the 21st century, digital infrastructure expands and democratizes opportunity with much greater reach and much lower cost than alternatives like building more college campuses and highways.
To achieve this goal, similar to the highway infrastructure, there must first be a national recognition of the problem and commitment to its solution, i.e., an understanding by the haves that access to opportunity by the have nots will benefit all. This recognition will enable a blending of federal and state investment policies that not only will generate a long-term return on those investments that will far exceed the dollars spent but create an environment for private enterprise to establish new commercial markets.
We agreed long ago as a people to care and feed the most underserved among us through entitlements such as food stamps and Medicaid. Increasingly, those benefits are contingent on participants working to climb out of poor economic circumstances. Yet we haven’t provided millions of marginalized Americans access to the digital world, making it unrealistic to expect those families to ever keep pace.
Federal and state governments should look to support our social safety net with investments in fiber optic, cellular, and satellite networks. The availability of high-quality, workforce-relevant credentials delivered online is expanding rapidly, and addressing the disparities in digital connectivity can drive tremendous and immediate economic and educational opportunity for disadvantaged individuals. Unlocking their potential would drive growth for the whole of American society.
As the Congress and governors consider infrastructure investment as a means to accelerate our recovery, they should start with a technology-first paradigm and develop ways to unlock and deliver benefits not yet imagined by removing the limitations of space and distance so as to achieve greater participation in our economy. With nearly 40 million unemployed, the need to connect with education, training, and jobs has never been more urgent. Just as the highways built 65 years ago had a transformative effect on American life and connected our people to more opportunity, reliable, high-speed internet for all will create pathways to opportunity for all.