Addressing The Digital Divide: An American Issue

  
By Shamed Dogan – State Representative, District 98

There are few issues today that haven’t become deeply politicized. Everything from healthcare, education, public safety, and defense are “hot button” topics that solicit fervent ideological emotions and reactions from Americans when brought up today. While these are all important issues that deserve debate, we must also give attention to issues that carry real promise of bipartisan resolution. One of these is what’s known as closing the digital divide.

Did you know that 34 million Americans didn’t have high-speed broadband Internet in 2015? That startling statistic comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) latest Broadband Progress Report and includes roughly 20 percent of Missouri’s population, making us the 42nd most connected state.

The facts become even more disheartening when applied to low-income and particularly minority households: African-American households are 12 percent less likely than white households to have a broadband connection at home. In addition, 83 percent of low-income households said their children’s schools expect them to have Internet access at home, but less than 50 percent of households below the poverty line have access.

These students are faced with a serious disadvantage, and they aren’t alone. Without Internet access at home, their parents aren’t benefiting from readily available online resources to get jobs, skills training, and medical care. Unless this changes, households in underserved communities will also continue to find themselves on the wrong side of the wealth gap, which is a topic that will be discussed later this week at the National Urban League’s Save Our Cities Conference right here in St. Louis.

Another topic of discussion will be the gig economy – think Uber and Lyft drivers – which are helping people stay afloat amidst economic uncertainty. But people can’t participate in that growing sector of the economy if they don’t have Internet access.

We need to get serious about closing the digital divide. Thankfully, it’s an issue that is snowballing in attention and more public and private sector leaders are stepping up. One of these champions is FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who in his first speech as chairman in January prioritized closing the digital divide. He noted:

“I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. We must work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”

By all accounts it looks like Chairman Pai is making good on his commitment, and he’s doing so on a bipartisan basis, which includes support from Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a long-time and steadfast advocate for closing the digital divide.

He formed the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to advise the Commission on solutions to remove barriers to broadband deployment and adoption and announced plans to establish an Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment. In line with his Digital Empowerment Agenda, the FCC voted unanimously to direct billions of dollars to broadband deployment in underserved areas. Additionally, members of Congress are advancing the Chairman’s idea to create Gigabit Opportunity Zones “to bring broadband and digital opportunity to our nation’s most economically challenged areas.”

This issue has also received action from Missouri lawmakers. For example, earlier this year, Senator Blunt was one of 30 senators on a joint bipartisan letter to Chairman Pai, commending him for his efforts to close the digital divide.

All these efforts are indeed welcomed news here in the Show Me State. Closing the digital divide isn’t a partisan issue; it’s an American issue. Every single American, regardless of race, income, or location, deserves the life-changing benefits that come with reliable access to broadband.

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Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Republican, represents part of St. Louis County (District 98) in the Missouri House of Representatives. His district includes parts of Ballwin, Ellisville, Fenton, and Wildwood. He was elected to his first two-year term in November 2014, and re-elected to a second term in 2016.