America Must Close its Digital Divide
Not every American has adequate access to the Internet and the various services it makes available.
The advent of ChatGPT, No-code AI, and voice cloning software only further demonstrates that digital technologies have advanced more rapidly than any innovation in mankind’s history, reaching around 50 percent of the developing world’s population in less than two decades and transforming societies. But though the United States is, as of 2021, the most digitally competitive country in the world, many often forget that not all of its citizens benefit from these advances. There exists the digital divide—the gap between those who have access to modern information technology and services, and those who don’t.
Many Americans are unaware that this is not just a problem for developing nations. A study by the Pew Research Center finds that 7 percent of Americans, approximately 23 million people, do not use the Internet, and 23 percent do not have access to a broadband connection at home. That includes nearly three in ten people—27 percent—who live in rural locations, as well as 2 percent of those living in cities. Additional data shows that 40 percent of schools lack broadband, as do 60 percent of healthcare facilities outside metropolitan areas.
But the impact of the digital divide goes beyond schools. A national assessment of the quality of infrastructure, inclusivity, institutions, and digital proficiency found significant gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income. In terms of economic impact, a Deloitte study projected that a 10 percent increase in broadband access in 2014 would have resulted in more than 875,000 additional jobs in the United States and $186 billion more in economic output in 2019.
This is extremely concerning, especially given that, in modern times, digital technology is considered the single most important driver of innovation, growth, and job creation.
The digital divide is a significant challenge, but solutions exist: funding and implementing digital inclusion policies, programs, and tools can help. Some of these include affordable, robust broadband Internet service; digital literacy training; quality technical support; and reading material designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.
The U.S. government understands the importance of this problem and is moving to address it. In March 2022, the Biden administration launched a $45 billion initiative to bring high-speed Internet to everyone in America, although some assert that $240 billion will be needed to bridge the digital infrastructure gap. Congress has since appropriated more than $100 billion, including $65 billion via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), to help states bring high-speed Internet access to every American household, much of which is allocated directly to state governments to implement it as part of BIL and the American Rescue Plan Act.
Creating and staffing new departments and planning how to deploy funds will be essential. Multiple stakeholders—including governments, the health insurance industry, Internet providers, and municipal bondholders—need to agree on precise plans and spending. The execution stage will also be lengthy, as the physical build-out of necessary infrastructure will take time.
Infrastructure needs aside, the affordability of digital services also plays a large role in the state of America’s digital divide. Europe, however, provides some salutary lessons from which the United States could learn. Because European standards mandate open access infrastructure—meaning that there are physical infrastructural that different service providers can all make common use of—multiple companies are spared having to invest in building physical infrastructure, enabling them to compete for customers in terms of a service level. As a result, European companies offer lower prices to attract customers, which benefits consumers.
The future that consumers are demanding is even more digital than today, even more connected, more global, and more intelligent. To achieve that future, with its growing demand for connection and data consumption, we need to invest more in digital infrastructure—whether that is a network, the Internet, data centers, storage, computers, transmission, systems, or applications. Of equal importance, we should make closing the digital divide for all Americans a priority of public policy. This task is one braced by inclusion and equity and aligned with our nation’s goal to compete and thrive in a digitally globalized world.
Jerry Haar is a professor of international business and executive director for the Americas in Florida International University’s College of Business. He is also a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.