The Time is Now to Address the Broadband Gap

September 28, 2022

The COVID pandemic changed the way we work, and states have been exploring ways to ensure their residents can keep up. 

This “tech new deal” affecting the U.S. includes one of the biggest investments in broadband since 2008. “We have not seen the amount of healthy investment in broadband since the American Recovery Act,” said Nicol Turner Lee, PhD, director for the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution. “It’s important to take advantage of this time.” 

Dr. Turner Lee was a panelist for Tuesday’s luncheon session, “The Age of Transformation: Workforce Development and Education in a Post-COVID Economy.” 

The ability to work remotely grew during the early days of the pandemic, but some people fell through the cracks. Dr. Turner Lee’s forthcoming book – “Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating a New Underclass” – explores the gap and how it impacts those without adequate access. 

“Let’s be smart,” she said. “It’s about closing the divide, preparing people for the next generation.” 

Many of the people who have been left out are those in rural America, said Matt Dunne, executive director for the Center on Rural Innovation, which he founded in 2017. 

He said it’s been clear since the recovery from the Great Recession was unequal, and many rural areas haven’t reached that pre-2008 level. The recovery as we emerge from the COVID pandemic, he said, is just as unequal. 

“We decided our role could take that head on and to help communities build tech economies,” he said. That means companies in rural America wouldn’t have to look to cities to find tech workers; they could find them locally. 

Dr. Turner Lee reminded attendees that there are plenty of opportunities and funds available “to help communities to transition from where they are today to where they need to be tomorrow.

In the middle of this conversation is higher education, and Amelia Manning, chief operating officer for Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, said SNHU has been tracking how higher education needs to continue to evolve to support not only students, but also their communities and states.  

“We have a strong belief that degrees will continue to be important, but we have to, as a university, also be able to provide other kinds of forms and credentials that lead to jobs, in the tech space in particular because the skills are so specific.”  

She said higher education has not done well in skills-specific areas.  

Dr. Turner Lee suggested state leaders develop goals and have a digital equity plan and a workforce plan in place. 

“Your focus should be on what are our workforce goals going to come from this opportunity,” she said.  

Dunne said more money is available now more than ever before for broadband expansion. “You need to make sure your state in a position to public private partnerships to make the most of it,” he said. “You want to do fiber to the home, do it right.” 

“When public private partnerships are optimized is when it allows for something that could be happening but isn’t,” he said. 

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