Communications Networks Are Key to Bridging the Digital Divide
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The current reality of a worldwide pandemic, combined with the ability to communicate worldwide digitally, have almost instantly reshaped the world. It will never be the same again. And while our future may not always be one of masks and social distancing, it is sure to be one of data-centric technology and connected devices.
Advanced communication networks are at the core of our new digital reality. They will continue to alter the way we transact business, share data, conduct business affairs, schedule health appointments and dinner reservations, and build our daily lives. Careers, social encounters, and our mental and physical well-being depend, to a large extent, on our ability to plug in.
That is a sobering thought. But it’s also exciting because the possibilities are so varied. Our digital experiences have become even more vivid, and more important, during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Whole communities have been brought together through online communication. We have “seen” through digital connections what individuals experienced on a ship in Tokyo’s harbor, on balconies in Italian villages, in Seattle nursing homes, and in hospital wards in New York City and New Delhi.
However, not every community is connected. There are still many communities in the U.S. without reliable broadband networks and high-speed internet access, leaving entire communities in digital darkness, and impacting the economy and healthcare and education systems.
The Digital Divide is Real
In the U.S., and in most parts of the world, high-speed internet access is not equally deployed. According to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, only 65 percent of rural Americans have high-speed access, compared to 97 percent of the urban population. On tribal lands, access is even lower, only around 60 percent. Between 30 and 42 million Americans have no access to wired or fixed wireless broadband.,
The PEW Research Center reports that nearly 30 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 do not own a smartphone. Broadband services are unavailable for approximately 44 percent of those Americans, and 46 percent have no computer. These startling inequities mean that whole communities exist in digital darkness. And as our data-hungry apps and devices require greater speeds, these communities will fall further behind.
Connectivity is the new reality, and the guarantee of a digital future must be available to the many, not the few.
The Economy and our Well-being Depends on Connectivity
There is no question that connectivity is the driving force of local, national, and worldwide economies. A lack of digitalization stunts economic functions from manufacturing to scientific research, from education to entertainment. It impacts generational interaction and exacerbates the disparity between economic classes. Lack of connectivity in America is also a likely contributor to an apparent “brain drain,” prompting an exodus of talented young people from small town America to more connected cities.
Other consequences of the growing digital divide are perhaps even more critical. Farmers and physicians may be worlds apart in their practice, but agriculture and medicine both have an overwhelming need for new technology and infrastructure to meet tomorrow’s needs. Feeding a growing and more diverse population is increasingly dependent on high-speed internet connectivity to manage production and facilitate food delivery. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that building a digital foundation today is the primary way to supply tomorrow’s needs.
National and international response to COVID-19 has accelerated not only the development of online resources, but also underscores the need to embrace connectivity to sustain the economy. The crisis continues to affect the way schools will operate in the fall, how restaurants and retail establishments conduct business and the ways we travel. The entertainment industry and sports events have been transformed. Who would have thought major league sports would be played without cheering crowds?
In a similar way, telehealth capabilities must be expanded to offer additional support to the medical community. A more connected future will help to minimize existing healthcare disparities. Not only can patients be digitally connected to healthcare providers, they can be connected more quickly and efficiently, helping to relieve critical care shortages and offering better treatment in times of crisis. It’s a win for everyone, and a desirable solution to existing needs, underscored by the sometimes-flawed responses evident during the current pandemic.
The new normal will be digital, for better or worse, but to capture the full impact and transformative benefits, it is essential to bridge the digital divide.
How to Bridge the Digital Divide
The growing gig economy and remote employment opportunities continue to point the way toward a need for robust digital services on a global scale. Continuing disparities between “haves” and “have-nots” will have an adverse effect on the local and global economy. Quality of life, improved health and safety, education, social mobility, civic engagement, and economic opportunity are all enhanced by connectivity.
The necessary communication infrastructure requires commitment, collaboration, and funding. Interestingly, COVID-19 is challenging our economic bottom lines, as well as providing the catalyst for funding. And our government leaders and business executives are realizing how important it is to accelerate the digital future. At the top of the list is investment in fiber and broadband deployment, but it will not happen overnight. Underserved communities can act now to prepare themselves with a plan and proactively explore new funding opportunities that can ensure the promise of connectivity touches every citizen and community.
Communication Networks are Critical Infrastructure
Communication networks are critical infrastructure, and reliable broadband is vital to advance economic opportunities, health and safety, and education, not to mention social mobility, civic engagement, and quality of life in communities. With so much hinging on reliable high-speed broadband, it’s time to invest in the infrastructure. Earlier this year, the FCC announced the launch of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to help expand rural broadband deployment and bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses.
Many communities have already started to plan for fiber broadband by conducting a feasibility study to sketch out their approach. As leaders in fiber broadband deployment, Black & Veatch observes that communities that take these three actions early in the process save time and money on the back end:
- Review cost assumptions and business plan. Not all feasibility studies are done to the same scope or depth, so it is important to continue the positive forward progress by adding definition and surety to the model and business assumptions.
- Conduct detailed mapping of existing fiber assets. While time-intensive, the information will be highly valuable in the formal design process, and will impact the project financials. Some entities include this in their comprehensive engineering contract, while others find it beneficial to get the process started in-house.
- Act to resolve program hurdles. The feasibility study will highlight technical, logistical, or regulatory issues that will need to be addressed. Tackle tough issues head on and address long lead-time items early, like service provisioning, billing, operational needs, and operations integration.
As federal funding becomes available, fiber and broadband infrastructure planning is the first step to establish digital building blocks to ensure communities thrive. Where fiber goes, 5G is soon to follow, which means rural communities can innovate alongside their urban counterparts, which benefits us all.
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The development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can expand internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.
In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.
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