Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturing enterprises, service firms, laboratories, schools and households across the United States were undergoing a steady, digital transformation. But the pandemic has shattered that paradigm and accelerated the pace of change unfurling across our economy and society.
A Paradigm Shift to Telework
In one of the most dramatic examples, hundreds of millions of workers have transitioned to telework, a shift in human behavior without precedent. Prior to the pandemic, about 15 percent of the U.S. workforce worked at least one day per week at home. However, by May 2020 – just two months into the shutdown – half of the U.S. workforce was working from home. This kind of transformation – in its scale and scope – would normally take decades to unfold. But it happened in a matter of weeks.
Yet, the exciting promise inherent in this grand transformation – greater personal flexibility, a new conversation around work-life balance – depends utterly upon access to and the affordability of a robust digital platform.
Cracks in the Digital Foundation
This digital platform and its supporting innovation infrastructure, a tightly woven tapestry, is today the foundation for the United States—for citizens; for government; for all industries, whether in manufacturing, agriculture, retail, entertainment, energy production and distribution, vehicles and transportation systems, communications, health care, knowledge and information acquisition; for every research enterprise; and more.
And this digital infrastructure’s importance and pervasiveness will only grow as we deploy and scale intelligent highways, connected and driverless vehicles, smart grids, ubiquitous telehealth, personalized mobility and medicine, virtual education, autonomous systems such as robots, and other “smart” systems.
Into the future, our increasingly digital nation will offer tremendous opportunities for personal, organizational and societal innovation, as well as new markets and jobs. But it will also require sustained and significant investments in research and new technologies. Other nations are trying to outpace the United States and advance their own investments in digital platforms and innovation infrastructure. They are becoming living laboratories for innovation. The United States must make similar investments and commitments to its citizens.
Access and Affordability for All Americans
Every American must have access to a powerful, robust, public-facing digital infrastructure – along with the knowledge and skills to leverage it for personal growth and empowerment, economic gain, and a higher quality of life.
We know broadband is an essential, 21st-century infrastructure for economic development and vitality for every single American and their community – the Covid-19 pandemic put this fact into sharp relief. Communities with robust broadband have a distinct advantage in attracting business capital investment to support innovators and new business formation, economic and industry growth, and job creation. And individuals with digital literacy skills are better able to find employment, are more productive in many jobs, and more able to increase their incomes.
Unfortunately, many Americans – especially those living in remote rural communities, on tribal lands, and low-income neighborhoods, or who have a disability – are unconnected or under-connected. The gap in rural and Tribal America remains notable: 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.7 percent of Americans in Tribal lands lack coverage at the FCC benchmark level, as compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas. According to the FCC, approximately 21.3 million Americans lack a broadband connection speed to meet their basic benchmark of 25/3 Mbps. And on the flipside to broadband availability, we have the challenge of broadband adoption. Thirteen percent of U.S. households do not have a broadband Internet subscription; in some states 20 percent of households do not.
A Commitment to Close the Digital Divide
So, Americans stuck on the wrong side of this Digital Divide—or staring over the edge of a Digital Cliff—are being left behind at an accelerating pace, struggling or unable to work or apply for a job, access public services, obtain public safety information during an emergency, and participate in many aspects of our increasingly digitized society. The Covid-19 pandemic has expanded the divide, forcing millions of people to try to be online simultaneously, exposing the inadequacies of home Internet services, and spotlighting the need for much higher delivered speeds and more synchronous networks.
Closing this Digital Divide requires strategies and investments to address the challenges of deployment and adoption. The Council on Competitiveness has called for a new U.S. Digital Infrastructure Access and Inclusion Initiative to do so. As Vickie Lonker, Vice President of Public Sector Solutions at Verizon
– who co-chaired the Council’s working group examining this issue – notes: “Closing the digital divide requires a conversation about digital inclusion, making sure people not only have affordable access, but are also equipped with the skills to use it successfully. Affordability, adoption and access are paramount.”
A recommendation in line with a potential bill from House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), a $100 billion “Accessible Affordable Internet for All Act.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) appears poised to introduce a similar bill in the Senate to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities on the edge of the digital cliff. These are fundamental issues that should have bipartisan support.
To compete in today’s global economy – and to prosper in the next economy – the U.S. private and public sectors must come together quickly to address this critical priority by providing more Americans with access to and use of the digital tools that will shape our future.