Why the infrastructure bill alone can’t solve digital connectivity challenges

State and local governments must come together with internet service providers to deliver training and devices to Americans that need access to essential services.

The $1 trillion dollar Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $550 billion to extend broadband capacity to those who still do not have the access they need. It is a welcome, long-overdue effort, but that effort cannot just stop when the fiber is laid and broadband is deployed.

Worldwide, societies have increasingly viewed fast mobile and broadband internet access as an essential service that is nearly as economically vital and life-sustaining as water and power. Indeed, especially since COVID-19, consumers increasingly depend on connectivity for remote work, job interviews and medical exams as well as grocery delivery and content streaming.

Even as this online activity has accelerated, a digital divide remains. A recent Pew Research Center study found 7% of Americans don't use the internet, many of whom live in rural parts of the country where digital  access has been historically limited due to lack of demand. As state and local leaders work with internet service providers to extend broadband to under-served and overlooked populations, they should act deliberately to ensure new users are able to access the full potential of this new connectivity.

Expanding generational access

First and foremost, local governments and service providers need to ratchet-up attention to senior citizens, especially those living on fixed incomes. State governments can also play a role here too, but it is essential the local government leaders find opportunities to connect with senior citizens at community centers and get them the access they need. 

According to an AARP survey, about 15% of U.S. adults over the age of 50 lack access to any type of internet connection. Reasons for this vary. For 60% of seniors high-speed internet costs are problematic, and more than a third lack confidence to use smartphones and other connected devices, the AARP found. Many have probably experienced a parent or grandparent unable to email, text or shop online from a computer or mobile device, yet most seniors want to be able to do that. The same AARP study also found 54% of seniors would like a better grasp on technology to connect more easily with others.

This data should serve as a wake-up call to service providers that have an opportunity to deliver tools and education to lift up and activate tens of millions of disenfranchised customers. They must collaborate with state and local policymakers who can ensure that activities like training sessions are available in communities across the country. 

Imagine ISPs augmenting their senior plans with services that connect older customers more quickly and easily to family and friends or to local government and health agencies they might need during an emergency. Consider the goodwill internet companies would engender if they also added free technology training for wireless and fixed technologies alike. Think about how this might raise a provider’s public image from a philanthropic standpoint.

Closing the digital divide for all communities

A similar approach could apply to lower income families. Nearly 25% of adults with annual household incomes below $30,000 do not own a smartphone, and 43% lack broadband access, a Pew Research Center study found. Black and Latino seniors, meanwhile, are more than 2.5 and 3.3 times more likely to be offline than other demographic groups, according to a study by Aging Connected, a campaign to help seniors get online. By contrast, connected technology is all but ubiquitous in households making $100,000 or more a year, the Pew study also stated.

For families with children, broadband access is essential. Most schools, especially since COVID-19, now ask students to research and track their work online. This move toward distance learning puts students from low-income households at a marked disadvantage. To compensate, it’s not uncommon for families to spend hours parked outside cafés or stores just to “borrow” a free and fast Wi-Fi signal.

Applying infrastructure bill funds to expand broadband connectivity will address this inequity, especially if some money is applied to creating new access points in schools, coffee shops and community centers. It will also be important, though, for states and their carrier partners to make it easier for low-income families to obtain computers and handsets for completing schoolwork by giving such equipment away for free. Yes, there's an expense to that, but one that will pay off in the long run for millions of families across the country.

Making the most of the broadband infrastructure funds 

For service providers, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference and profitably help disenfranchised Americans cross the digital divide. Carriers can more effectively identify under-served populations by adopting tools that provide a single view of current and prospective customers across applications, data and devices. When combined with deliberate efforts to reach disconnected Americans such as those outlined above, investments in dashboards and other aggregators can give policymakers and carriers the perspective needed to put infrastructure bill funds to their best use.

Denise Dresser is EVP and CRO of Sales, Comms, Media and High Tech at Salesforce.

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