This op-ed was originally published in Protocol.
By Edward “Smitty” Smith
When the world came undone in March 2020, technology made the impossible possible, at least for some of us. Those of us who work in “knowledge economy” businesses, law firms
, and government agencies continued to do our work from home. School buildings were closed, but teachers continued to deliver instruction to their students online. Doctors continued to see patients via telemedicine appointments. However, at the same time that the pandemic demonstrated all that is possible in an interconnected world, we saw in new and increasingly stark ways how certain communities continue to be marginalized and harmed by a persistent digital divide and how effectively that divide exacerbates our society’s other inequities.
We saw students without broadband at home attending classes from the parking lots of fast food restaurants because that is where they could access Wi-Fi. We saw the struggle of low-income, mobile-only users to schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments on clunky government websites that had not been optimized for mobile. And, ironically, these low-income, mobile-only users were also those among us most likely to have jobs that required that they leave home and risk their health and safety. After decades of failing to close the digital divide, the bill for our neglect of the unconnected came due in undeniable and tangible ways and the most vulnerable among us paid the highest price.
In 2021, I had the privilege of leading a team of experts in creating the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion on behalf of the National Urban League. The plan was inspired by the life of Lewis Howard Latimer, a black American inventor, patent expert and draftsman who made groundbreaking contributions in his work with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Released in the middle of a global pandemic that disproportionately impacted communities of color, the Plan focused on four achievable goals: deploying networks everywhere, getting everyone connected, creating new economic opportunities to participate in the growth of the digital economy and using the networks to improve how we deliver essential services, in particular in workforce development, health care and education. The Plan recognizes that, though it is broadly accepted despite broad recognition that the digital divide results in diminished opportunities for impacted communities and the availability of resources to close the divide, we have made only modest progress towards closing the gap between the digital haves and the digital have-nots. Furthermore, it highlights that the failure to close the divide harms not only unconnected communities but also impedes broader economic growth and public good for all Americans. Our lackluster digital infrastructure is one of the most significant drivers of digital inequity. Access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it is an essential prerequisite to navigating modern life. And yet many communities lack broadband access or are unable to connect because the cost of broadband service remains too high for many families.
Fortunately, Congress stepped forward and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes historic investments to expand broadband access, creates more low-cost broadband options, connects low-income apartment buildings with Wi-Fi, reduces high-speed broadband costs for tens of millions of Americans by $30/month for low-income families and provides $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act to address critical digital equity and inclusion needs in our communities. Together the Latimer plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill can help close our digital divide. Powerful tools are now available, but the hard part will be ensuring they are deployed in equitable and inclusive ways.
But this is just a start. There is so much more we need to do to make sure our future is more equitable and inclusive and maximizes America’s potential. It is not enough just to ensure everyone is connected. We also need to extend the full scope of digital opportunity to the people, the communities, and the institutions that have too long been left behind. This means the opportunity to be more than users but also full participants in the digital economy, including as tech workers, innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and executives. Congress is now considering another potential bipartisan bill that takes a number of additional important steps forward in opening these opportunities.
Like the Latimer Plan, the pending Bipartisan Innovation Act recognizes we must also ensure that all communities have the opportunity to fully participate in the digital economy. But today, 90% of growth in high-tech jobs happened in just five metropolitan areas and Black and Hispanic workers have remained dramatically underrepresented in the technology workforce. We need these well paying high-tech jobs to be created in more than just affluent coastal communities. The Bipartisan Innovation Bill will help diversify where innovation happens by creating a network of new regional innovation hubs to make sure communities traditionally left behind can benefit from the well paying jobs that innovation creates — an important step to closing the gap in access to economic opportunity and participation identified in the Latimer Plan.
The bill will also help diversify the STEM talent pipeline by investing in our HBCUs and MSIs, funding new scholarships and fellowships and increasing technology literacy to give more students the opportunity to pursue careers in technology so that the next generation of leaders in the high-tech economy will look more like Lewis Latimer, and more like America. These steps can help unlock the door for students, for families, for entrepreneurs, and for communities –giving more people a pathway to good paying high tech jobs and giving more diverse voices a seat at the table as we shape our technology future.
Passing the Bipartisan Innovation Act is perhaps the single most important technology-related bill that Congress can adopt this year to continue to make progress on digital equity and inclusion. If we do, it will help improve how we connect, how we innovate, how we learn, how we grow our communities and how we compete. And, together with robust broadband investment, it will help improve how our country delivers health care, education, job training and other government services in ways that will benefit all Americans, especially those in marginalized communities. Our future can no longer wait.
Edward “Smitty” Smith is Chair of DLA Piper’s U.S. Regulatory and Government Affairs Practice and Advisory Board member to Trusted Future.