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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

The infrastructure bill won’t be enough to close the digital divide

The digital divide -- the gap in broadband access between rich and poor, urban and rural -- is one of America’s most persistent problems. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the inequalities by making high-speed internet access even more essential for work, school, health care and commerce. About 30 million people live in unserved or underserved areas, the White House estimates.

President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion proposal to overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure is an important and overdue step toward achieving the vital goal of affordable broadband for all. The package, which is still being debated in Congress as of this writing, includes a $65 billion investment in high-speed internet infrastructure. 

While the plan would go a long way toward making the U.S. economy fairer and more sustainable, more will be needed. The digital divide is just too big. Thirty-five percent of rural America still lacks broadband access, the president told Congress. According to a Tufts University study, $250 billion is needed to close the digital divide -- nearly four times the current proposal.

But closing the digital divide is not and should not just be about getting basic broadband to consumers and businesses. It should also be about ensuring that academics and other researchers in rural and underserved communities have the same ability to connect as their peers in metropolitan areas. That a community college in rural Kansas deserved access to the same high-speed backbone as, say, the University of California, Berkeley, is a matter of principle and common sense: Who knows where the next great innovator might come from? Ensuring opportunities for all students and researchers everywhere should be a national priority.

That’s why representatives from dozens of the top U.S. universities and tech companies have banded together to launch The Minds We Need, dedicated to what should be a key component of a national broadband improvement plan: making sure every university, community college, historically Black university and minority-serving institution is connected to the best modern information and communications technology. 

“The national infrastructure today is not uniform and does not reach all states, nor does it reach community colleges, which are feeders into four-year programs,” one of the members, internet pioneer Vint Cerf, says on the organization’s website. “We must enable institutions in all 50 states to have high-speed capacity. The emphasis in any national plan must be on spreading capacity to the most underserved communities.”

The Minds We need is calling for a $5 billion, one-time public investment, to be completed in three phases, to bring more consistent broadband access to the country’s research and education sector, with a particular emphasis on institutions that have been chronically underserved 

Awards should be prioritized for nonprofit research and education networks, tribal institutions, community colleges, minority-serving institutions, colleges and “university research-affiliated organizations that can then form partnerships, as appropriate, with private sector companies to implement the programs, with a goal of engaging our nation’s diverse system of 3,900 accredited, degree-granting higher education institutions,” the group says. 

Academic institutions and tech companies have a shared interest in seeing the initiative succeed. For their part, academics in rural areas certainly would benefit from better connectivity, not only to engage in the same critical research as their peers in urban-suburban areas but also to more easily collaborate with those peers. 

Likewise for tech companies, fostering more inclusion in research and education infrastructure is not only altruistic, but it could help solve a critical talent shortage. A new survey by analyst firm Gartner shows that IT executives see the skills gap as the No. 1 adoption barrier to nearly two-thirds of emerging technologies. Talent availability even overtook implementation costs or security risks in the report as the top impediment to deploying a new technology.

Plain and simple, the nation can no longer rely exclusively on the typical computer science and engineering schools to produce all the people they need and must look to tap into talent wherever it may be. Simply put, we can no longer live inside a bubble and ignore the untapped potential across the country. 

A crucial vote on the infrastructure bill is scheduled to take place in the House on Oct. 31. Passage would be a major move to shore up toward narrowing the digital divide. But to truly close it, we’ll need a broader collaborative effort involving key stakeholders. We need more initiatives like The Minds We Need.

About the Author

Sampak Garg is head of government affairs at Juniper Networks, a supporter of The Minds We Need.

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