The pandemic led to lockdowns that caused many people to work from home. That illuminated the digital divide that exists in the U.S., and economists warn that the potential ramifications may be worse than expected as remote workers play an integral role in shaping our economy for the next 50 years.
What Is the Digital Divide?
The digital divide refers to the gap between people who have consistent access to the Internet and those that do not. In the Digital Age, a lack of regular access is a significant disadvantage, and economists worry that it could have a substantial negative impact on our workforce moving forward. There are two core components to the digital divide: the availability gap and the affordability gap.
What Is the Availability Gap?
The availability gap is the aspect of the digital divide that has arguably received the most attention over the last decade. It refers to people who do not have access to any internet service at all but also those that lack access to broadband internet—at all or at a level necessary for their households. The availability gap is often associated with rural America. There are many rural areas throughout the U.S. in which there is not a great deal of profit motivation for the internet service providers to expand into.
What Is the Affordability Gap?
The affordability gap has received greater attention due to the pandemic. It refers to households that have Internet access but cannot afford it or choose not to afford it because they use those resources for other necessities. One of the most shocking aspects of the affordability gap is the millions of Americans who live in major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles who cannot afford Internet. The affordability gap is a problem in rural America too. Starlink, Spectrum, and Dish internet will soon offer broadband internet to all rural Americans, but will the average household be able to afford the setup costs?
The Infrastructure Bill
The infrastructure bill that was recently passed in the Senate and expected to soon pass in the House is one of the most sweeping pieces of legislature in American history when it comes to trying to close the equality gap. The bill includes $65 billion for expanding Internet access, and the funds are not limited to private companies. It will make it easier for municipal ISPs, for example, to expand as well.
Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit
There is still much to be done on the affordability front, however. The Emergency Broadband Benefit has been a step in the right direction and allows low-income households to reduce their Internet bills by as much as $50 a month. On the downside, the EBB is a temporary program that will, at best, only last as long as the pandemic is deemed a public health emergency. The Lifeline program is permanent but currently only provides a benefit of $9.25 a month, which is not enough. If that were increased to $50 when the EBB ends, that could make a significant difference in closing the gap.
Growing Digital Fluency
There is another component of the digital divide, and that is the digital fluency gap. According to a Pew Research Center study, as much as 7 percent of Americans who do not use the Internet do not know how or face obstacles other than the availability or affordability gap. There are also concerns with the American workforce. The K-12 system is not preparing enough people to meet the current and future employment demands. Some argue that we need to deemphasize the importance of a four-year college degree and emphasize career technical educations that could put people into the workforce sooner.