(This article was originally published in Forbes.)
Many of us in the U.S. don’t spend a ton of time or energy thinking about how the internet we use every day works or where it comes from. We take our video calls from our home offices (or kitchen counter, closet or ironing board), turn the baby monitor on when we go to sleep and order food delivery on our phones. We do so without ever having to consider all the puzzle pieces that must physically come together to enable us to live our lives in such a way.
The reality is, though, the internet isn’t magic. Servers need to live somewhere, fiber optic cables need to land someplace, the data from your phone, laptop and smart TV needs to be processed and all these things need to be connected somehow. And there are still Americans today that don’t have access to broadband internet—or, even more importantly, access to the internet with the speed and performance that they need to thrive.
According to a White House fact sheet, there are an estimated 30 million Americans living in areas with little or “no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds,” and even more with internet speeds suboptimal for standard internet use. Additionally, the results of a Pew Research survey found that nearly 25% of adults residing in rural areas believe that access to high-speed internet is a “major problem” in their community. Comparatively, only 13% of urban adults and 9% of adults living in the suburbs experience this issue.
Bridging the digital divide
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Access Without Quality
These statistics represent a clear disparity and complex technology issue in our society that all too often gets overlooked. When we talk about the internet access component of digital inclusion, it’s crucial that we talk about the quality of the internet people have access to. Things like speed, performance and latency are critically important aspects of the “digital divide.”
Providing internet access without proper performance, speed and reduced latency is sort of like building a bridge to nowhere. Imagine trying to use dial-up internet for a telehealth appointment or a Zoom meeting with multiple colleagues. Access without quality can hinder job opportunities, career advancement training, online schooling, community building, telehealth availability and many critical resources.
A couple of years ago, at the height of the pandemic, many parents, teachers and caregivers were thrown into the perils of remote learning. However, some faced the added struggle of driving daily—sometimes up to 50 miles—to public library parking lots to access internet speeds fast enough to attend online classes.
Access to properly functioning, high-performing broadband is now a fundamental minimum requirement to participate and succeed in our increasingly digitized society.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Right now, the U.S. has an incredible opportunity to build out broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas across the country. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $65 billion for expanding broadband internet access and adoption. This is a major step in the right direction.
The congressional intent behind the broadband funding is to ensure all Americans have equal access to reliable and affordable high-speed broadband and prohibit “digital discrimination” based on race, ethnicity, color, income level, religion, geographic location and national origin.
To be successful, there are a few principles that government agencies and enterprise and technology leaders should keep in mind when implementing the IIJA funds:
- Remain solution neutral. It’s important to consider a range of digital infrastructure options that not only expand access to broadband but also reduce latency and improve quality and performance. Sometimes, it can be easy to stick to traditional solutions without exploring all the options available.
- Encourage competition. Investing in methods to encourage competition among service providers helps keep costs low for consumers and improves choice. Businesses like multitenant data centers foster a vendor-neutral environment in which a variety of service providers can connect.
- Make stipends easy and affordable. Making it simpler for people living in areas with broadband gaps to apply for stipends and keeping tabs on the impact of the stipends to encourage adoption will help improve digital inclusion. Additionally, streamlining the application processes and making eligibility requirements explicitly clear is important for an effective stipend program.
- Improve equitable digital mapping. Accurate and periodically updated digital mapping will help prioritize investment and measure progress. This can ensure that underserved areas are properly identified and receive the support they need.
- Drive awareness. It’s vital to continue to drive awareness, recognizing that the problem is far more nuanced than simply a matter of geography. It’s important to understand all factors that contribute to the broadband component of the digital divide.
- Team up. Decision-makers should consider partnering with groups like the CEO Action for Racial Equity committee, a business-led initiative focused on bringing enterprises, communities and policymakers together to drive change and address the digital divide.
Bringing It All Together
Although broadband access is critical for Americans to participate in the digital economy, not all connectivity is created equal. To make progress, we must carefully consider not only internet access but also how to improve performance and foster competition in under-connected areas. Additionally, government agencies and private sector stakeholders will need to work together to achieve greater digital inclusion.
There is a saying that “a waterfall begins from only one drop of water”. In September this year, Equinix launched the Equinix Foundation with a $50 Million commitment to advance digital inclusion. Through the Equinix Foundation, we want to come together to improve the world by increasing equitable access to technology. In the words of our CEO, Charles Meyers, “we are excited that through the Foundation, we’ll also advance our future-first commitment to build a better, more inclusive, more sustainable world.”