Co-chairman at Two Sigma and Chairman at the Siegel Family Endowment
We often oversimplify the "digital divide" and measure it by looking at broadband access and affordability. However, as essential infrastructure, broadband must be viewed through a digital, physical, and social lens, and thus requires the analysis of multiple metrics.
Throughout the pandemic, Americans without broadband have confronted sharp digital inequalities that threatened their access to the economy, education, social services, healthcare, and community ties. Given this, the most telling data points to understand the digital divide take into account the multidimensional nature of the factors that cause the divide: access, but also cost structures, digital literacy, governmental programs and incentives, relationships between technology companies and telecoms, and broader socioeconomic trends, among others. The Center on Rural Innovation, a nonprofit devoted to advancing inclusive rural prosperity, has created an interactive map and data dashboard that identifies rural communities that are primed for innovation, as well as those that are falling behind.
The digital divide is a moving target, not a fixed chasm; as new technologies emerge, the shape, depth, and location of the "divide" changes. We'll need to continue to look beyond just the digital piece to understand and address these inequalities.
One of the key lessons of the past year is this: Software is growing jobs all across the country — and we have research showing big jumps in software jobs even during the pandemic. Growing those tech jobs, including beyond the traditional tech hubs, requires the right kind of connectivity.
As officials work to close the digital divide, we'll be watching to see how software jobs continue to grow outside traditional tech hubs — in places like New Mexico, Idaho and Tennessee. That's how we'll ensure that every part of America has the ability to take advantage of the tremendous growth in computing jobs and the use of software tools to address local challenges and improve local economies.
The leading indicators in closing the digital divide are the number of new people covered with broadband connectivity, the amount of bandwidth they receive, and the affordability of connectivity. We believe that by innovating new architectures and technologies that we can change the economics of the internet and move the needle on all three. Our most telling data points will be our ability to change the cost of access for those underserved and the strength and scale of broadband connectivity offered for those unconnected.
To achieve this, a focus on transforming connectivity to efficiently meet the ever-growing demand for low-latency and higher speeds is vital. 5G will be the gateway due to its high bandwidth and low latency which unlocks wireless connectivity where previously not possible. In remote areas, leveraging 5G with Wi-Fi 6 we can now enable homes, schools and businesses to access learning and employment opportunities. By removing barriers around cost, infrastructure, and access, we can equip students with the skills needed to join the workforce; democratize access to jobs; and provide a great level of remote healthcare support.
We are committed to closing the digital divide and changing the economics of the internet. We have recently launched Cisco's Rural Broadband Innovation Center to help enable internet connectivity, no matter a person's location.
During the past 18 months, a lack of reliable access to broadband in underserved or rural communities meant that 12 million American kids could not participate in remote learning because they lacked a device, connectivity or both. The Biden administration has earmarked $65 billion in transformational investments in the nation's Broadband Infrastructure. America needs a proposal that's technology-neutral and supports both fiber and mobile broadband — 5G specifically.
As leaders in 5G, Qualcomm has shown that 5G provides a cost-effective way to deliver fiber-like internet speeds wirelessly to homes, schools and businesses, addressing some of the "last mile" challenges in rural areas via Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). A pilot test by U.S. Cellular and Qualcomm in Janesville, Wisconsin, shows FWA, powered by 5G mmWave, can provide rural communities high-speed internet access in a cost-effective way.
Furthermore, Accenture found that 5G could add up to 16 million jobs across all sectors of the economy and $1.5 trillion to the U.S. GDP between 2021-2025. Therefore, extending 5G across the nation can bring economic and environmental benefits, enabling many industries to improve environmental sustainability. For example:
Farmers can use real-time data to improve crop yields, manage livestock, and minimize water and energy waste.
5G-connected smart grids will reduce gas and electricity consumption by 12%.
Using Cellular-Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) and 5G to connect cars to other cars and infrastructure can reduce traffic jams ensuring vehicles are running efficiently, reducing carbon emissions by 15% to 20%.
At Qualcomm, we are dedicated to ensuring our technologies and innovations improve all lives through the benefits of 5G connectivity.
The digital divide has plagued our society for decades, but COVID both exposed the depth of its impact and further widened the gap. Remote work, distanced training and job losses dramatically impacted those without adequate access to technology or the digital skills to stay ahead. This is really coming to light in today's battle for top talent.
Companies that implement upskilling programs position themselves to recruit more effectively, and attract and keep the best talent. In fact, according to a recent PwC CEO survey, 93% of CEOs who introduce upskilling programs see increased productivity, an improvement in talent acquisition and retention, and a more resilient workforce. Despite these benefits, only 8% of CEOs have made significant progress in creating upskilling programs that address their digital skill gaps. This needs to change.
Where this really gets interesting is when we look at the data from more than a third of job-seekers who would be willing to take a pay cut for the opportunity to learn new skills, and 77% of workers globally say they're ready to upskill. People are ready and hungry to learn and remain relevant and economically viable. But they need access to training. And unfortunately those who need digital skills the most are the least likely to get them. It's the fiduciary responsibility of businesses to provide upskilling opportunities that close the digital divide from within their organizations.
In a recent survey on digital access, Booz Allen Hamilton asked over 2,000 participants how they would prefer to get information, access or apply for government services. Certain demographics, like the 35-44 age segment, reported a definite preference for online government services, while other demographic groups those over the age of 65, along with participants who do not have a college education, were less likely to report that they prefer to use digital government services.
When it comes to closing the digital divide, the government needs to meet all citizens where they are. The metrics of success need to focus on trust in government and the digital services it provides, in addition to awareness of, comfort in, and the ready availability of access to those services and the technologies they rely on.
Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is a Research Editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.