Jim Kohlenberger:
Pragmatic Steps to Deliver Digital Connectivity, Trust, and Opportunity For All

This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.

At a time when access to the digital world has become increasingly indispensable for almost every aspect of modern life, one of the greatest challenges facing leaders today is how we extend digital opportunity to everyone. Fortunately, there are pragmatic steps within reach that policymakers and business leaders can take to ensure connectivity for all, trust for all, and opportunity for all.

Connectivity for All

Thanks to the infrastructure bill, we are on the verge of historic action to extend high-speed broadband throughout the country. It’s amazing progress, but it also overshadows our equally important challenge of addressing the broadband affordability gap that isolates economically disadvantaged Americans who can’t afford broadband. To tackle the affordability gap, there are two urgent steps needed to get and keep everyone online.

Step One

First, without Congressional action, millions of at-risk Americans could lose their internet access next year, and we can’t let that happen. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a $14 billion federal program aimed at closing the digital divide for low-income Americans through a monthly broadband discount, and a one-time discount for a laptop, desktop, or tablet. The program has been a huge success for the 20 million Americans it has helped connect, including the 56% who have opted for mobile broadband. Despite its success, funding for ACP is projected to run out early next year unless Congress acts — putting millions of low-income Americans, veterans and others at risk of losing their internet access.

Given the program’s bipartisan success, its extension would seem easy. It was created through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, benefits households in Republican and Democratic districts equally, and garners overwhelming bipartisan support among voters. That’s why so many leaders say it’s imperative that Congress extend this vital program. But action is far from certain, and Congress needs to act quickly to ensure our digital progress doesn’t get disconnected.

Step Two

We also need to connect the 6.5 million Americans living in low-income apartment buildings who are disconnected from the digital economy. Roughly 24% of our digital divide is concentrated in low-income apartment buildings. Without broadband, these residents can’t access telemedicine, online job training, remote work opportunities, or the critical government services that we all take for granted.

Fortunately, Congress funded a key provision to extend hotel-style Wi-Fi into low-income apartment buildings so residents can access it for free. States now need to prioritize these projects in their broadband plans to get everyone online.

Trust for All

While connectivity is critical, we also must overcome a digital trust gap. For those without home broadband, while affordability is the biggest barrier to adoption, 42% cite lack of trust as a key barrier. Ensuring technology can be trusted by all requires robust privacy, safety, and security safeguards that protect the vital technologies people use every day — especially around the mobile devices, apps, and services that are empowering people of color, low-income Americans, and key marginalized communities.

Take the smartphone. As their utility has grown, the smartphone has increasingly become the primary means by which many communities of color and low-income Americans are gaining access to the digital world. Twenty-five percent of Hispanic and 17% of Black adults are “smartphone-only” internet users, as are a quarter of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year — meaning they own a smartphone, but do not have traditional home broadband service. As a result, they are more likely to use their mobile devices for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens — like applying for jobs, accessing remote health care, or learning new skills.

But as smartphones have become more capable and essential, they’ve also become a bigger target for bad actors who often attempt to trick users into downloading malicious apps, steal their privacy, or take their money. To thwart these efforts and build trust, innovators need to build robust privacy, security, safety and accessibility measures directly into the devices, apps, websites and services they build.

Congress also needs to do more by passing a comprehensive national privacy framework to ensure that privacy protection is built into our technologies by design. To thwart bad actors, policymakers also should support and encourage the vigorous efforts already underway to provide robust protections for people’s privacy, safety, and security on their devices — efforts that prevent billions in fraudulent transactions. Only then can we make sure all can trust our technologies.

Opportunity for All

Inclusion today is also fundamentally about expanding opportunity for all. New technologies can be powerful opportunity equalizers, but only when users are empowered with the skills needed to take full advantage of them. At a time when demand for digital skills is growing, the truth is HR managers often are confronted by a gaping digital skills gap and lack of diversity throughout our technology industries.

Today, while 92% of all jobs require digital skills, 50% of Black workers and 57% of Hispanic workers lack the basic digital skills necessary to succeed in the digital economy. We not only need to expand access to basic digital skills but also ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn the more advanced skills (like how to code) that can lead to the higher-paying and faster-growing jobs that the innovation economy generates.

The good news: promising efforts like Michigan State University’s amazing App Developer Academy remind us how empowering and critical investments in these areas can be. When technology is designed by and for more diverse communities, it can help ensure that the benefits of technology are more widely distributed.

That is why overcoming these three challenges — enabling connectivity, trust, and opportunity for all — is perhaps the greatest digital challenge of our generation, and the key to driving a more responsible, prosperous and inclusive digital future. But it won’t happen by chance, nor continue by inertia. It takes pragmatic policy choices and a bold commitment from leaders for a more inclusive digital future. Because a more inclusive future is a better future.