The pandemic put a spotlight on the digital divide in our nation. The divide between the “haves” and “have nots” of technology (access, tools, and training) wasn’t new, but the contrast was suddenly stark when education, healthcare, and jobs quickly moved online.
The digital divide is often considered to be a matter of connectivity but the issue is much broader. There needs to be equal access to broadband connectivity and education to know why it matters and the hardware and skills to make leveraging online resources a reality. This inequality in digital content requires people and companies across sectors to be aware and engaged in solutions.
Beyond those larger issues, digital content is not easily accessible to everyone. For starters, 60% of content is in English despite only 17% of the world’s population speaking English. Many cultures don’t allow women access to education; they’re certainly not accessing all the tools and content available online. Specialized training is needed for those with disabilities to access online resources, and it’s hard to come by.
Lack of access to broadband internet and devices and insufficient training and education, has created a divide that isolates broad swaths of the population. This has pressing social and economic consequences.
According to Census Bureau data, about 81% of rural households are plugged into broadband, compared with about 86% in urban areas. Interestingly, the number of urban households without a connection (13.6 million) is almost three times as many as the 4.6 million rural households that don’t have high-speed connectivity. In other words, for every rural household that is not connected, three urban households do not connect to high-speed data networks, despite availability.
Extending high-speed networks into the rural reaches of the nation is a common topic of discussion. While it’s an important and laudable goal with a lot of support behind it, the issue of connectivity is more complex than availability. Many non-subscribers don’t understand what they might gain from connecting to online resources or have the financial means to purchase the requisite hardware and pay for a broadband subscription.
Lack of digital literacy leaves people unsure of the value of digital access, the vast resources available online, and how to access them.
As an industry, construction has work to do to close the digital divide within its ranks. While the pandemic helped usher in new tools and technologies for collaborating safely, despite social distancing requirements, construction is generally considered to be one of the least digitized industries in our economy, behind agriculture and hunting. This is likely a function of digital literacy among aging members of our industry.
According to Go Build America, the average age of a tradesman is 47. The more senior construction workers have managed projects without the benefit of technology and the internet, while younger employees have grown up using technology at home and in their education. This younger generation will likely turn the tide, bringing technology and digitization into every aspect of construction workflows.
Public-private partnerships are critical to bridging the divide. While the public sector works to remove barriers to network development and create policies that support enhanced digital literacy, the private sector works on the grassroots level to bring tools and education to underserved populations.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity program is one of the largest public-private efforts to improve broadband access to rural and other high-cost-to-access areas. The long-standing Lifeline program, founded in 1985 to make sure American households had a landline phone for safety purposes, now works to provide discounted broadband service.
In November 2021, public sector efforts to invest in broadband networks got a big boost when President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law, a massive step toward more equitable internet access. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Development Program allocated $42 billion for greater broadband deployment.
The first step in expanding broadband deployments using IIJA funding was the FCC’s rescoping and release of a new National Broadband Map with detailed information about broadband availability throughout the country. That was released in November, and now a public comment period is underway to determine specific, local-level needs and allocation of funds for the construction of additional broadband capacity.
Each state is allocated at least $100 million, possibly more, depending on the outcome of the complete needs assessment for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of infrastructure in underserved areas. Building, connecting, and maintaining that infrastructure involves permitting and easements, networking and siting wireless facilities. It will no doubt be a long process.
As funding slowly flows from federal and local government coffers to support network development, the private sector has an important role to play in supporting the effort to shrink the divide through constructing new networks, educating employees, and getting involved at the grassroots level to help access and drive awareness of the issue.
For one, Infrastructure Masons, or iMasons as those of us in the digital infrastructure industry know it, is engaged in closing the digital gap through its Digital Infrastructure Futures Foundation (DIFF), which works to accelerate the adoption and use of digital infrastructure by increasing education and access opportunities for underrepresented communities. As a 501c3, DIFF is eligible for employee giving programs and employer match for employee donations.
Bridging the digital divide is up to all of us, and we all benefit from equal access to online resources. Studies show that digitally equipped people contribute substantially to the economy. According to research from Broadband Now, providing technology and connectivity to 2 million people (of the 40-160 million who lack access) translates into a 1.2% bump in GDP, or a $4.8 billion increase. Imagine the implications on a global scale!
We live in a technology-dependent world. The internet is no longer a “nice to have.” It’s a have-to-have.
Most of us regularly access and engage important services and content online, from library books to medical records. It’s imperative for students, working adults, and even seniors to be connected in this day and age. Getting involved in closing the digital divide is one way to be a part of the discussion, demonstrate the high-tech nature of the construction industry, and ensure that all people, organizations, and groups have the access they need to thrive.