Digital Divide A Bit Smaller, But There’s Work To Be Done

by Elesha Barnette on May 18, 2012

This week, the National Urban League released a report, “Connecting the Dots:  Linking Broadband Adoption to Job Creation and Job Competitiveness.”  In a period in which the economic news, particularly for minorities, is often grim, this report is unalloyed good news.  In just one year, African Americans have narrowed the gap in adopting broadband technologies by one-half, from 19 points in 2009 to 11 points in 2010.  And the gap is surely even smaller now.

That a major civil rights organization would focus on broadband adoption is itself significant.  It shows that in the second decade of the 21st century, broadband literacy is a component of many of the jobs of the future and thus a key to economic advancement.  Broadband adoption allows all Americans to embrace the future equally; anything that reduces the digital divide helps build economic promise and a strong future in which all benefit equally from technological advances.

This reflects what we have always known – that African Americans are an important consumer market and that given the right opportunities and equal access to new technologies, they would close the divide.

But the work is not done.  As the nation increasingly moves to a broadband world, including the stunning advent of advanced wireless broadband systems, ensuring that the same quality of broadband is available to everyone will become increasingly important.

And with new successes come new challenges.  Many of us are quickly moving to mobile broadband.   Our smartphones provide us the opportunity to job hunt while on the go, monitor our health and search for educational opportunities; we are no longer just tethered to our laptops at home.  The most important challenge for the mobile wireless ecosystem will be to ensure that there is sufficient spectrum available.   Spectrum, the airwaves that support wireless data transmission, are vital to the functionality of wireless broadband. As more and more people take up broadband, the spectrum will become increasingly crowded.  And as both old and new users find more and more creative and innovative ways to use broadband – new applications in areas like health, for instance – the spectrum we have will become more crowded still.

The government, which controls who uses which parts of spectrum, needs to allocate spectrum for consumers’ use and needs to find ways to promote private investment in the infrastructure that supports our broadband economy.  Only the private sector can invest the tens of billions of dollars that are required to meet President Obama’s goal of advanced wireless broadband available to 98 percent of Americans.  That’s why it’s so important to ensure that the right policies are in place to encourage this private sector investment – policies like regulatory certainty, predictability, and smooth, fair auctions that will get new spectrum for consumer use into the hands of network operators.

Once this is done, a new world of possibility opens.  Businesses can use broadband to reach new customers.  Broadband literacy will help prepare young people for the jobs of the future, so many of which will depend on broadband.  But all this depends on sufficient spectrum for people to use easily, securely, and reliably.

Only in this way can the promise of the broadband revolution, for economic growth, jobs, and the enrichment of our lives, truly reach everyone.

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