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How Connectivity for All Helps Everyone

The digital divide leaves people unconnected, but it also prevents important services from getting faster and smarter through technology. Today we have a chance to fix that.

A parent and child using a laptop together

Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our nation's most urgent priorities became the closure of the longstanding digital divide. The pandemic's impact on every aspect of daily life clearly revealed the disadvantages that people who lack connectivity face, and have faced for years, in a world that is becoming thoroughly digital. And during lockdowns and shutdowns, students were among the groups most impacted.

But there is another side to the digital divide—one that impacts everyone, not just the unconnected. The internet is powerful because of what it enables: faster, more accessible, more efficient services. But the persistence of the digital divide is preventing many of our most vital institutions and services from taking full advantage of those benefits because too many people they need to serve will be left behind. Our new report, the fourth in a series we've done with Boston Consulting Group, takes a close look at how the digital divide impacts education, health care, government services, and employment. Here's what our new report reveals.

Connectivity is a win-win for families and essential institutions.

High-speed internet makes it possible for essential institutions, like schools, governments, health care providers, and employers, to innovate and make their services more accessible, efficient, and higher quality. Despite the potential for these improvements, essential institutions may be reluctant to make full use of online technologies because doing so would effectively deny under-connected populations equitable access to these essential services. By closing the digital divide and ensuring everyone has access to affordable high-speed internet, devices, and the skills to use the internet effectively, the quality and efficiency of services in key sectors can be improved for everyone.

Making the internet faster and more affordable expands access to essential services.

When essential institutions can more fully leverage internet-based technologies, they're able to both enhance their services and improve access and use. Here are some examples of what's possible:

  • Students have better access to teachers (in person and online); teachers can more fully employ edtech tools and advanced technology; and schools can better accommodate the use of computers and modern student data systems.
  • Patients have better access to services (in person and online); doctors can see more patients, serve more remote areas, and interact with patients on a more regular basis; and clinics and hospitals can better integrate remote health monitoring technologies, lower costs, increase likelihood of early diagnosis, and reduce wait times.
  • Governments can improve efficiency of their services (e.g., public health, social services); improve mass communication and program awareness; and enhance in-person services where needed.
  • Remote workers have more flexibility, and are more productive and easier to retain; job seekers have more opportunities; and employers can find better candidates.

Historic funding opportunities give states the potential to expand services and close the digital divide for good.

The funding that's been unlocked by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has created the opportunity for states to reap significant economic and social benefits from better connecting their communities. Leveraging these funds could benefit everyone—consumers, essential institutions, and the private sector—by incentivizing new providers to come into communities, giving consumers more choices at lower costs. But realizing these benefits will depend on key decisions made today by state broadband leaders. Leaders need to work with all broadband stakeholders to make smart choices about deployment, affordability, and accessibility.

Digital inclusion resources are key to success.

Connectivity is only the start of the conversation. For families and communities to get the most out of their high-speed internet and devices, they have to know how to use them safely and smartly. Digital inclusion programming is vital to ensuring that the infrastructure investments being made by states and the federal government reach their potential. Leaders must focus on all aspects of closing the digital divide, including investing in long-term Affordable Connectivity Program outreach and enrollment, digital navigator services, and digital skills training programs.

For decades, leaders across sectors have been cautious about integrating internet-based technologies into institutional services, in part because the benefits of these technologies— cost savings, service improvement, expanded access—can't be fully realized without causing harm to those caught in the digital divide. Now, by making it possible to close the digital divide, the IIJA and ARPA stand ready to unlock innovation within these institutions for the benefit of all.

If you're a state broadband leader and would like to discuss this report in more detail, provide feedback, or arrange for a presentation, we'd love to hear from you! Please contact [email protected] with your questions.

Amina Fazlullah

Amina Fazlullah is the Senior Director Equity Policy at Common Sense. Her work focuses on expanding access to technology and digital well-being advocacy. Prior to joining Common Sense, Amina was a Tech Policy Fellow at Mozilla, where she worked to promote broadband connectivity in underserved communities around the world. Amina has also worked with the Benton Foundation, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for the Honorable Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, and at the FCC.