The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our economy and shined a spotlight on the role the internet plays in how we communicate and do business. As most of the country relied upon broadband access to work remotely during the pandemic, millions of others were left behind because they lack access — either because they lived in areas that don’t have broadband infrastructure or couldn’t afford the cost of service despite $10-$20 entry-level plans offered voluntarily by most providers.
Lack of broadband impacts everyone, whether it’s children who are unable to connect to remote classes and in turn fall behind in school, parents who are unable to run small businesses from home, or folks who are out of work. Our country is trying to rebound from the pandemic and get back to full employment, but millions of unconnected Americans are being held back: Living without high-speed internet can mean missing out on a job posting, training programs or access to the wide array of online employment networks.
The digital divide has had an especially significant effect on people of color. In both rural and urban areas, the percentage of households that lack high-speed internet access is higher among communities of color.
As the president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, I’ve seen the opportunity that connectivity affords to businesses of all sizes and the many people they employ. Getting folks connected isn’t just the right thing to do; it benefits all of us. A recent study found that, had there been a 10 percentage-point increase in broadband access in 2014, more than 875,000 additional U.S. jobs and $186 billion more in economic output would have occurred five years later in 2019.
How to connect people
We need bold action to get every American connected. There are two clear ways to do this.
First, Congress can pass a permanent federal benefit that helps low-income families afford access to broadband and the economic power it brings. The federal government helps pay for school lunches, affordable housing and health care coverage to low-income families. Broadband is clearly an essential service in 2021, and the government has a role to play to make sure everyone has access.
Second, the federal government should prioritize investment in the expansion of existing broadband infrastructure to the millions of rural Americans who lack access to it. The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan and subsequent negotiations on Capitol Hill over the infrastructure package have done a commendable job acknowledging the severity of the issue and the need for investment. However, proposals for duplicative, government-run networks only serve to take away resources from unconnected communities that truly need them. We should build upon the substantial infrastructure that we already have, to bridge the digital divide as quickly as possible.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to address a clear inequity. By building upon our current broadband infrastructure and establishing a permanent benefit, we can not only connect the millions that deserve high-speed internet access but bolster the American economy in the process.