April 21, 2021

As we enter what we all hope are the final phases of the COVID-19 global pandemic, public administrators are presented with countless opportunities to reflect on how government has responded to unprecedented challenges.  While much of the national conversation is focused on large scale federal programs, the response to the pandemic has permeated every agency at every level of government.  Our constituents have focused their attention on our public health and economic recovery programs, but internally we have been forced to take on challenges in personnel management, budgets, information technology, and maintenance of physical facilities.  Leadership in public administration has never been more critical to the success of government programs than it has over the past year.  We now have an ethical obligation to make honest assessments of where we succeeded, where we failed, and how we can be better prepared for the next unpredictable crisis.

The pandemic has also provided opportunities for us to find new ways to serve the public by implementing programs that equitably present the most value to the greatest number of people.  As we transitioned to a virtual existence with online public education, telework, and staying connected with friends and family through our computer screens, access to broadband internet connectivity quickly became less about convenience and more of a critical necessity.  We can also reasonably predict that our world will remain more virtual than it was before COVID-19 as many employers realize the cost savings and other benefits of having a workforce that is at least partially remote.  Inequities in access to reliable broadband internet service that are the result of either inadequate infrastructure or socioeconomic conditions that make access unaffordable create another system of haves and have nots, or more accurately, the connected and the unable to connect.

The digital divide perpetuates geographic and economic inequities that are the barriers to individual prosperity.  Multiple studies conducted by the Pew Research Center over the past two years found more than twenty-one million Americans without access to broadband internet service with rural areas disproportionately affected by gaps in connectivity infrastructure.  Twenty-seven percent of rural populations, forty percent of rural schools and sixty percent of healthcare centers in rural areas lack sufficient broadband access.  Those same studies found that forty percent of low-income children relied on free public wi-fi access to complete schoolwork during the pandemic as compared to just six percent of their classmates in higher income families.  If public administrators are seeking a way to provide opportunities to those citizens who need them the most, addressing the digital divide is a proverbial silver bullet.  By making broadband accessible and equitable, government can bring new opportunities to the communities that have historically fallen behind in education, employment, and healthcare.

The real challenge to broadband accessibility is that it is a private, for-profit industry.  Simple economics stand in the way of infrastructure build outs in rural areas with a small customer base, because they are not profitable for the private sector.  Similarly, the costs associated with internet service prices many low-income families out of the market.  Government investment in public-private partnerships that bridge the digital divide are more than just assistance to the end users who will become connected.  It is a gateway to address some of the most fundamental challenges facing policy makers.  At a time when internet connectivity is widely recognized as a critical resource, public administrators must finally seize the opportunity to bring the internet to those who have been left behind.


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