When the demand for internet-based information surged following the pandemic, and seemingly every facet of daily life was conducted from our homes, a new light illuminated an old problem. It became clear that large numbers of people were left in the digital dark. Kids without connectivity suffered in school. A lot of people weren’t able to connect with care providers. Our less-tech-savvy elders couldn’t see family, even virtually. The workforce shrunk. The list of setbacks goes on.

Lack of access to broadband internet and devices has created a divide that isolates large groups of people. We live in a technology-dependent world. The internet is no longer a “nice to have,” it’s a have to have.

More than access

The digital divide is often considered to be a matter of connectivity, but education is an equally important variable in the digital access equation that doesn’t get as much attention in the mission critical community. Lack of digital literacy leaves people unaware of the vast resources that are available online and how to access them.

About 81 percent of rural households are plugged into broadband, compared with about 86 percent in urban areas, according to Census Bureau data. Interestingly, the number of urban households without a connection (13.6 million) is almost three times as many as the 4.6 million rural households that don’t have high-speed connectivity. In other words, for every rural household that is not connected, there are three urban households that do not connect to high-speed data networks, despite availability.

The attention given to the digital divide in the years since the pandemic has been impressive. In November 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, a huge step toward expanding internet access. Among other things, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Development Program allocated $42 billion for greater broadband deployment.

Industry engagement

Public-private partnerships have been a boon to closing the digital divide. While the public sector works to remove barriers to network development and create policies that support enhanced digital literacy, the private sector works on the grassroots level to get tools and education to underserved populations.

One way Compass is investing to enhance digital literacy is by getting more deeply entrenched in the efforts of the Infrastructure Masons and the Digital Infrastructure Futures Foundation (DIFF). DIFF is a 501c3 focused on increasing education and access opportunities for underrepresented communities. We’ve come alongside to lend our platforms and voice, advocating for more organizations to get engaged on solutions, in addition to donating laptops and tablets.

A number of other technological leaders are doing great work in the U.S. and abroad to partner with internet services providers, community organizations, public policy groups and governments to accelerate deployment of high-speed internet. They’re also refurbishing devices and partnering with community organizations on skills training.

Cisco, for example has built strong relationships with not-for-profit organizations and state governments to support and scale existing digital-skills-building programs.  Cisco’s Networking Academy delivers industry-standard IT education through partnerships with high schools, colleges and universities, not-for-profit organizations, prisons, and community centers. In 2021, Cisco launched Skills for All, a free, mobile-first, self-paced program that works to make acquiring technology skills more inclusive and accessible.

Upsides of closing the divide

Bridging the digital divide is up to all of us, and we all benefit from equal access to online resources. Studies show that digitally equipped people contribute substantially to the economy. According to research from Broadband Now, providing needed technology and connectivity to 2 million people (of the 40-160 million who lack access), translates into a 1.2% bump in GDP, or a $4.8 billion increase.

There is great momentum on this issue. I hope companies will continue to commit to being a part of the solution, despite the pandemic urgency lifting and an economic recession looming. As an industry, let’s commit to staying the course and continue to invest in solutions.