The digital divide brings together strange bedfellows. Satya Nadella is worried about it; his company, Microsoft, finds that half the country is not using the internet at speeds capable of maintaining a half-decent Zoom call. In Nadella’s home state, Washington, Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers shares her concern, even though she has introduced legislation that prohibits municipalities from creating their own networks to help bridge the gap. She is not a fan of President Joe Biden and Joe biden is also not a fan of the division. Joe Biden is however a fan of municipal networks.
Among the Democratic and Republican proposals, a nice round number keeps popping up on what it would cost to give all Americans access and full use of digital technologies: $ 100 billion. As spectacular as that sum is, it is also spectacularly offbeat and a mirage.
But if we’re honest about the true extent of the digital divide, we can begin the creative engineering needed to bridge it.
An eight-year, $ 100 billion budget to bridge the digital divide – echoing a Democrats’ $ 94 billion proposal in Congress – was one of the key pillars of the first U.S. plan for President Biden’s employment. Since negotiations with the Republicans, Team Biden has retreated to a more modest $ 65 billion. The problem was that $ 100 billion was already insufficient. This figure is taken from a 2017 FCC estimate of what it takes to give every American broadband access. But the FCC grossly underestimates people without high-speed internet, mistakenly mapping fewer than 14.5 million people disconnected. Research firm BroadbandNow’s more reliable “manual” control puts the number at 42 million. And, of course, according to Microsoft, the number of people not using broadband, either because of inadequate access or equipment, or because it is too expensive, is much higher. Even FCC Interim President Jessica Rosenworcel acknowledges the undercoverage and has commissioned appropriate nationwide broadband mapping.
Take that 42 million account alone. Applying the FCC’s cost structures, my Imagining a Digital Economy for All (IDEA) 2030 research team analyzes that the government must spend at least $ 240 billion. Far from shrinking the budget, the Biden team must increase it even more.
A complication is the rural-urban divide within the digital divide. The Democratic and Republican proposals emphasize the lack of internet access in rural areas, where they want to attract voters. However, three times more urban households than rural households do not have a broadband subscription. While the rural gap is due to the high costs and low income potential of building infrastructure in scattered and sparsely populated areas, urban households typically lack broadband because it is unaffordable. This means that we must not only develop infrastructure, but also lower the price of broadband access.
The renewed focus on racial justice may offer a way to devote more resources to the urban divide. The harsh reality is that the digital divide reflects a racial divide, with cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland as the main case studies. Nationally, there is a 14 point gap in broadband access between white and black households with children in school. Black households have less access to higher paying, technology-oriented occupations; no wonder black communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the economic downturn. If these conditions persist, with increasing automation and remote working, the majority of blacks and Hispanics could be excluded from 86% of jobs by 2045. The digital divide is at the center of many pressing racial inequalities in care health, education, job security, and welfare.
Although Biden has made racial justice a priority, can he expect some support from Republicans to ease the way? At first glance, it would appear that bridging the digital divide is a bipartisan priority, again in part due to a shared incentive to appeal to rural voters. Some Republicans even argue that the current compromise budget of $ 65 billion on the Biden plan is essentially $ 100 billion when you include what is already “in the works” and passed by Congress. Whether it’s fun math or not, it seems remarkable to find so much harmony in Washington, DC, in 2021, on both the problem and the money for a solution.