Closing the digital divide: It’s not optional
America is at a critical, high-stakes inflection point
With the Senate’s passage of a massive infrastructure bill, there is rare and refreshing bipartisan consensus on the need to close the digital divide, which came into sharp focus during the pandemic. As much of daily life, including work and school, shifted online, underserved communities faced huge obstacles to productivity and success.
The sweeping bill dedicates $65 billion toward expanding broadband internet access- and this is urgently needed. A recently released report from the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Commission echoes this call-to-action as it will be vital to our nation remaining economically viable in the coming “GeoTech Decade,” an era in which emerging technologies have the potential to impact national security and reshape society.
Now policymakers need to realize the high-stakes inflection point at which our country stands and support the following specific bold actions to eliminate the digital divide:
Bolster broadband access
A just-released Pew Research Center survey finds even as U.S. households with lower incomes (below $30,000) make gains in smartphone adoption, four out of 10 adults lack access to broadband, a computer or a laptop at home.
This reality reveals itself in the “homework gap,” or the gap between school-age children with access to high-speed internet at home and those without. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home. Fast-forward five years and astonishingly this problem has only been exacerbated. After the pandemic hit, nearly 60% of low-income parents reported their children lacked either reliable internet access, a home computer, or a smartphone to complete their studies, according to Pew Research Center data collected in April 2020. Contrast that with households earning over $100,000 annually, where only 1% of adults reported a similar lack of access.
Leaders should keep two important factors top of mind as our digital infrastructure grows. The first is the cost to local communities and households. Up to 60% of disconnected students hail from families that cannot afford to pay for internet access or devices. The second is expediency of implementation. Technologies such as fixed wireless access, advanced antenna systems, and network automation to optimize quality of access are all options available to us right now.
Grow digital fluency
The digital divide’s very definition has expanded over the past three decades and now also includes the inequity between those with and without digital technology skills, also known as digital literacy. Again, here the U.S. lags.
According to the National Science Board, the U.S. will experience a shortfall of nearly 3.4 million skilled technical workers by next year. A whopping 96% of technology executives say talent staffing in 2021 is “very” or “somewhat” challenging. The skills gap is acute for emerging technologies. Specifically, the AI talent deficit is the U.S. government’s single-greatest inhibitor to buying, building, and fielding AI-enabled technologies and is rapidly becoming a top national security priority, according to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.
The federal government, which has invested considerably in AI, needs to empower its workforce to lean into AI’s promise. One study predicts productivity gains of up to $532 billion per year in the public sector by 2028 with the automation of repetitive tasks and the augmentation of human capabilities.
From robotic process automation (RPA) to quantum computing to virtual reality, developing a digitally fluent workforce requires a fresh look at how emerging technology competencies are acquired and the training incentives being offered by employers. Such investments should directly align employers’ needs for technically skilled workers with the training and education programs they provide. More robust tax incentives for skills training should also be included among the solutions to the skills gap.
Promote career technical education
According to the National Science Board, one reason for the paucity of qualified skilled workers is simple. Students and graduates have not been adequately empowered by the K-12 system with the math and science skills the careers of today and tomorrow demand.
Importantly, the digital divide reinforces skills gap racial inequities. Consider the following concerning realities: While one-third of all white workers in 2018 had jobs they could perform at home, less than 20% percent of African American workers and 16% percent of Hispanic American employees worked at jobs that could be performed remotely. Without intervention, a majority of African American and Hispanic American workers could be locked out of 85 % of the existing occupations by 2045.
The U.S. needs a cultural re-evaluation of what it means to be a member of today’s skilled technical workforce. While for decades we prioritized bachelor’s degrees, the reality is the pathway to the middle class no longer mandates a four-year degree. In fact, career technical education (CTE) can now often provide new grads with the lifestyles they aspire to more quickly than a college or university degree.
Students need to be better informed in middle and high school about the exciting variety of existing and future technical occupations ripe for the taking. They need guidance on pathways toward acquiring tech skills credentials, including certificates, professional licenses, digital badges, apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships, as these now can forge meaningful points of entry into lucrative careers.
To fully achieve the promise of the GeoTech Decade, the U.S. cannot be left behind by the speed, scale, and sophistication of technology’s advancement. Let us seize this moment, bridge the digital divide, and blaze a trail toward a prosperous future for America and all its people, regardless of zip code.
John Goodman is CEO of Accenture Federal Services, co-chair of the Atlantic Council’s Commission on the Geopolitical Impacts of New Technologies and Data, and a 2020 Virginia 500 honoree.
David Bray is executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Commission on the Geopolitical Impacts of New Technologies and Data.