New Opportunities to Close the Digital Divide

The pandemic highlighted the need for improved broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

By Clarence Anthony

In the wake of this year’s tumultuous election, one thing is clear: the stark challenges that face our communities have not gone away simply because Election Day has passed. As America’s cities, towns and villages head into winter, a reliable, affordable broadband connection is more critical than ever to keep us connected to school, work, family and civic life. Unfortunately, far too many households still lack that connection.

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 17 million schoolchildren lived in homes without a broadband subscription, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. While local leaders, schools and philanthropists worked tirelessly to match students with donated or loaned wireless hotspots and laptops, these efforts are an emergency band-aid on a much larger connectivity problem.

By closing the digital divide, we are building an economic engine for recovery from the pandemic, and a better, stronger future for our families, communities and nation.”

Historically, our nation has not treated broadband as a form of essential infrastructure, but the lack of ubiquitous connectivity holds our nation back from economic recovery and growth. Communities with fast, affordable broadband in every neighborhood and home are better able to attract employers and new residents, invest in more efficient connected utility and transportation infrastructure and maintain property values. Multiple pre-pandemic studies showed that broadband access consistently improves a home’s value — a feature that has become even more appealing in a post-COVID world.

But without significant and fairly targeted federal investments in broadband, the digital divide and its economic impacts will only continue to widen. Communities with absent or outdated broadband infrastructure will continue to suffer brain drain, fail to attract new employers and lose out on a workforce that increasingly works from home. Families with flexibility will choose towns and neighborhoods with fast, reliable broadband options. Families without that flexibility will be forced to continue cobbling together inadequate solutions, including sharing a data-capped mobile hotspot, parking outside schools, libraries, and fast food restaurants for free wi-fi, and losing out on opportunities that require a reliable connection.

The digital divide is not merely a rural-urban disconnect. While rural communities are more likely to lack broadband infrastructure altogether, the quality and affordability of broadband in urban and suburban communities is uneven across neighborhoods and often divided along racial and economic lines. This discrepancy exists for a host of reasons, from the low profitability of broadband investment in sparsely populated areas, to the insufficient and overly broad available data used to steer federal investments, to the low speed standard still used by the federal government to judge availability and maintain accountability.

Our federal government has an opportunity to strengthen our nation’s digital infrastructure. However, in order to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted, our leaders in Washington must take steps to make adequate investments and policy changes that are targeted to meet the diverse needs of communities. This process begins with updating the data and standards used to determine who has adequate broadband and who does not: the availability maps, affordability data and speed standards that support modern usage, such as videoconferencing. Several states and their localities have partnered to develop this data within their own states, and the Federal Communications Commission has begun the process of modernizing its own mapping process. Still, the federal government has a long road ahead.

This data and accountability serve as the foundation for new, large-scale federal investment in broadband infrastructure. Congress must not shy away from thinking big and ensure that funding is not only limited to investments in wholly “unserved” areas – which are defined by data largely agreed to be inaccurate – but also invest in upgrading the infrastructure in underserved places. As technology evolves, communities served by aging DSL or facing digital redlining around certain neighborhoods will be left behind if we do not dedicate resources to upgrades and filling in gaps in otherwise “served” areas.

Finally, any large-scale federal broadband program must preserve the role of local leadership and the ability for communities to chart their own destinies. The obstacles to connectivity are different in every community, and the solutions will differ from community to community as well. Congress should remedy the years of federal and state overreach and preemption that have stopped communities from fairly negotiating with internet service providers and wireless companies, prevented local accountability measures and halted municipal broadband investment. Closing the digital divide will require full participation from all players – federal, state and local, public and private – and municipalities must not be cut out of that process.

When we invest wisely in broadband as essential infrastructure, everyone wins. By closing the digital divide, we are building an economic engine for recovery from the pandemic, and a better, stronger future for our families, communities and nation.

Clarence E. Anthony is CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities (NLC), the largest and oldest organization representing America’s cities and their leaders.