Why it will Take More than Technology to Close the Digital Divide

By Dan Whalen, ATX CEO |
megaphone with coax and fiber outlines

I had the privilege of participating in the recently completed Broadband Equity Challenge, an interactive case competition among teams of university graduates focused on closing the Digital Divide and reducing digital disparity across demographic groups. While my role for the event’s finale was to help select a winning presentation, I ended up being more student than judge that evening, thankful for the opportunity to take in the participants’ exhaustive research and stimulating ideas on how to ensure that the broadband revolution remaking our world leaves no one behind.

It was also a lesson on the limitations of focusing too much attention on technology and money (the billions of public funding being devoted to extending high-speed networks to remote areas) as agents for narrowing digital disparities. Making the broadband network farther reaching and higher performing is the easy part of closing the Digital Divide. The much harder and more important part, I was reminded that evening, is making sure everyone, everywhere is a full and equal participant in our connected society.

That starts by dispelling the myth that the Digital Divide is exclusively about urban vs rural broadband disparities. While several million households in the U.S. are either unserved or underserved, in terms of robust broadband, the far greater issue is that multiple demographic groups face barriers to accessing high-performance broadband regardless of where they live. These barriers include digital illiteracy, a lack of financial resources or physical disabilities, to name a few.

Breaking Down Barriers

Marketing and outreach, it turns out, are just as important as technology in closing the Digital Divide.

Overcoming these barriers was the focus of most of the presentations delivered during the Broadband Equity competition. Grad students from seven teams and five different universities offered detailed marketing and engagement plans aimed at helping MSOs and other telecommunications providers not only reach these demographic groups but also give them the means to be fully connected to a world where nearly every aspect of human existence and interaction is moving to a digital realm.

The steady migration of healthcare, education, employment and other critical services to virtual environments means that resources and opportunities for the unconnected, those primarily reliant on brick-and-mortar facilities, will begin to recede. An elderly person without the digital literacy skills necessary to participate in a telemedicine session, for example, could eventually be deprived of life-enhancing or even life-saving medical services.

A particularly eye-opening presentation from the competition focused on how full participation in the larger broadband community can also be a source of salvation for some demographic groups. Citing research that a significant percentage of elderly people in the United States suffer from social isolationism, a team of grad students from the University of Miami proposed that access to a vibrant broadband community could provide a means for elderly Americans to tap into the communal lifestyle enjoyed by senior citizens in some cultures outside the U.S.

By providing the socially isolated with the ability to fully participate in broadband communities, the students assert, MSOs can play a role in reducing stress and improving the mental health of a demographic group that is on the rise in the U.S. Accordingly, a big part of their presentation was how MSOs should go about reaching and educating a community that is largely living off the grid.

Marketing Matters

Marketing and outreach, it turns out, are just as important as technology in closing the Digital Divide. Extending wireline and wireless connections deep into remote communities means nothing if a significant swath of the population lacks the awareness or the means to plug into the broadband community.

The competition left me hopeful that MSOs will strive to be even more innovative in how they market their services and how they make them accessible to potential subscribers who, for example, may be old enough to remember rotary phones, lack access to computing platforms or need to overcome accessibility challenges due to a disability.

Finally, the remaining misperception related to closing the Digital Divide that must be cleared up is related to technology options. With more than $42 billion about to be allocated for broadband buildouts through the U.S. Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, states need to understand that how cost efficiently and how quickly they deliver world-class broadband to their populations depends heavily on technology choices.

No Single Solution

While fiber makes sense for the majority of new builds, many of the demographic groups mentioned in this blog can become full-fledge participants in their broadband communities much faster and much more inexpensively through fairly seamless upgrades to the HFC networks than they can through building new fiber networks from scratch.

The most important goal of improving people’s lives through ubiquitous availability of high-performance broadband is making sure that no one is left behind, not even for a day. Unnecessary rigidness regarding the underlying technology is counterproductive to achieving that goal.