May 3, 2022
Senior Vice President, C_TEC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the need for more inclusive digital opportunities in the U.S. Access to technology was and continues to be integral to those working from home and attending school remotely. However, many families struggled to take advantage of these opportunities amid stay-at-home orders.
The country must prioritize accessibility to all citizens as technology remains prominent in our daily lives. Rick Wade, SVP of Strategic Alliances and Outreach at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sat down with Jordan Crenshaw, VP of C_TEC for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to discuss how both private and public sectors can help bridge this digital divide.
During the Pandemic, 19 Million Americans Lacked Access to Broadband
Technology is vital to all Americans. Those who lack access to technology, from the internet to artificial intelligence, can face many roadblocks in their personal and professional lives. This limited accessibility may impact their education, career, finances, and overall livelihood.
“Another area of tech I think is critically important to ensuring all Americans have equal access to the digital economy is broadband,” said Crenshaw. “During the pandemic, I would note that the nation led the world in terms of capacity when everyone was flipping the switch from in-office work to remote work and in-classroom learning to remote learning. And it's because of the private sector and our private sector-led networks we were able to keep up that capacity.”
Without access to the internet, many lack access to the digital economy as a whole, including the tools needed to partake in necessary tasks like remote learning and working.
Yet, “at the height of the pandemic, 19 million Americans, according to the FCC, still lacked access to broadband — the actual physical ability to link up to high-speed broadband,” Crenshaw said.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Will Help Households Address Affordability Issues
Accessibility is only one aspect of the digital divide; affordability continues to be an ongoing concern for many households. In fact, according to Crenshaw, during the pandemic, nearly a quarter of homes with teenagers brought in under $30,000 and lacked access to the internet. In particular, 18% of Latino households and 11% of African-American households with children didn't have access to a computer.
“If you're not connected online today, you are left behind,” Crenshaw said.
“Affordability is something that is hitting folks across the country,” he continued. “And as … we have rising costs overall, it impacts everyone.”
However, the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) is making the Affordable Connectivity Program, originally called the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a permanent program for those who cannot afford internet. The initiative will provide households that meet certain income level thresholds to earn $30 per month toward their connectivity costs.
“This enables a little bit of flexibility in terms of what the money can be spent on,” Crenshaw said. “It also requires some of the broadband providers to make public awareness campaigns [and] let individuals … know about the availability of the program.”
“This really addresses the affordability side,” he continued. “This is a very excellent once-in-a-generation opportunity, I think, to work at getting Americans connected and does examine both sides of the affordability and the access gap.”
State and Local Chambers Must Work Together To Bridge the Digital Divide
To help those individuals and families who cannot access or afford to benefit from the digital economy, public and private entities must maintain ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide.
“State and local chambers are invaluable as this process is being guided through states,” said Crenshaw.
States must continue to determine areas to prioritize and push for their local broadband agencies or offices to focus their funds on areas that truly need it and don't have access, Crenshaw added.
“Local and state chambers are going to be those frontline workers for making sure that this bill is implemented effectively on a state-by-state level,” he said.
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