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Tech Talk: Addressing America’s Digital Divide

By Yunyun Wang, CDT Summer Intern 

As internet access and computer ownership become increasingly crucial to American households, the disadvantages of not being connected to the net are more pressing and apparent. Today, roughly 1 in 5 Americans still lack access to high-speed broadband service, and rural areas are most affected, with a quarter of the rural population (14.5 million people) still without internet. Staunton, Virginia, is one such area. A major transportation hub in the Shenandoah Valley during the late 1800s, it is now home to nearly 25,000 people and is severely lacking in high-speed broadband access. Its residents struggle to complete daily tasks such as managing money and bills, accessing health information, applying for jobs, and taking online classes. 

While the term “digital divide” has gained higher national attention in recent years, the problem has been recognized and grappled with by the U.S. federal government since 1998. In his 2000 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton first argued for a “national crusade” to bridge the connectivity gap between Americans. A detailed report published in 1999 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) also provided an outline of federal actions intended to solve the information gap of this “digital divide”. The subject of bringing broadband to rural America, a largely bipartisan issue, has been addressed repeatedly in State of the Union addresses that followed. So why is this still such an issue over twenty years later, and how are we working to bridge the digital divide? In the latest episode of our podcast, Tech Talk, we invited two guests to discuss these questions.

The Path to Connectivity

Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee of the Brookings Institution joined us to talk about her work in Staunton, and what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Her humanizing portrayal of communities without access provides an in-depth account of why this is an issue deserving increased national attention. One consequence is lack of access to economic opportunities that the internet enables, an issue that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam addressed at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity in 2018. To bridge the gap, the state of Virginia is investing in rural broadband infrastructure.

The path to extensive coverage of rural America envisioned by many state governments requires extensive fiber networks. Fiber optic cables, which can transport large amounts of information, easily outmatch the network bandwidth of existing copper cable equivalents. But the high costs of constructing new fiber optic cable infrastructure often derail these ambitious projects. The telecommunications industry is often reluctant to build out these networks, citing the high costs and low number of projected customers as primary barriers to entering rural markets. So, municipalities are looking for innovative ways to achieve greater broadband coverage. They are experimenting with new funding models to overcome the high costs of fiber networks, and are exploring the full range of technological benefits that high-speed broadband access would make possible. 

One consequence is lack of access to economic opportunities that the internet enables.

Smart city incubators are looking to help cities with this process. Organizations like US Ignite, a nonprofit originating in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and led by the National Science Foundation, connect cities with research institutes developing cutting-edge gigabit applications, and with smaller internet service providers and tech industry partners. 

US Ignite is building a smart gigabit community program, and currently has over twenty-five communities across the country in their network. Scott Turnbull, US Ignite’s Director of Technology, also joined us on Tech Talk, and spoke about how barriers to access prevail in both metropolitan cities and rural areas alike. However, he also offered encouraging examples of how communities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., have been able to bring high-speed internet to their communities through municipal broadband plans. These communities don’t stop there, and continue to expand on their connectivity efforts through adopting new tech applications. Raleigh, N.C., implemented one such innovative tool: 360° VR video applications that allow students to virtually interact with university faculty, enhancing the reach of STEM education. With high-speed internet, municipalities can make transformative changes and increase the economic opportunities of not only their residents, but also members of other communities. 

Digital Inclusion for All 

Digital inequities remain widespread, but many people in the U.S. are working in innovative ways to bridge the digital divide. Digital inclusion benefits us all, and can kick-start innovation in many communities and foster entrepreneurship at the local level. Take a listen to what Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee and Scott Turnbull had to say on America’s digital divide, and how we can start to bridge it in innovative ways.