The current reality of a global pandemic, combined with the ability to digitally communicate worldwide, changed the world almost instantly. It will never be the same again. And while our future isn’t always made up of masks and social distancing, it is sure to be data-centric technology and connected devices.
Advanced communication networks form the core of our new digital reality. They will continue to change the way we do business, share data, handle business matters, schedule health appointments and dinner reservations, and shape our daily lives. Careers, social encounters, and our mental and physical wellbeing depend to a large extent on our ability to connect.
It’s a sobering thought. But it’s also exciting because the possibilities are so diverse. Our digital experiences have become even more vibrant and important during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Whole communities were brought together through online communication. Through digital connections, we have “seen” what individuals have experienced on a ship in Tokyo Harbor, on balconies in Italian villages, in nursing homes in Seattle, and in hospital wards in New York City and New Delhi.
However, not every community is connected. There are still many communities in the United States without reliable broadband networks and high-speed internet access, leaving entire communities in digital darkness and having an impact on the economy, health care and education systems.
The digital divide is real
High-speed Internet access is not used equally in the United States and most of the world. According to a report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), only 65 percent of rural Americans have high-speed access, compared to 97 percent of the urban population. In tribal areas, access is even lower at around 60 percent. Between 30 and 42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband.
The PEW Research Center reports that nearly 30 percent of adults with household incomes less than $ 30,000 do not own a smartphone. Broadband services are unavailable to approximately 44 percent of these Americans, and 46 percent do not have a computer. These startling inequalities mean that entire communities exist in digital darkness. And as our data-hungry apps and devices demand faster speeds, these communities will continue to fall behind.
Connectivity is the new reality and the guarantee of a digital future must be available to many, not a few.
The economy and our wellbeing depend on connectivity
There is no question that connectivity is the driving force behind the local, national and global economies. A lack of digitization affects economic functions from manufacturing to scientific research, from education to entertainment. It affects intergenerational interaction and exacerbates the differences between economic classes. The lack of connectivity in America is also likely to contribute to an apparent brain drain that is leading to an exodus of talented young people from small-town America to more connected cities.
Other consequences of the growing digital divide are perhaps even more critical. Farmers and doctors may be worlds apart in their practices, but both agriculture and medicine have an overwhelming need for new technologies and infrastructures to meet tomorrow’s needs. The nutrition of a growing and more diverse population is increasingly reliant on a high-speed Internet connection to manage production and facilitate the delivery of food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that building a digital foundation today is the most important way to meet tomorrow’s needs.
The national and international response to COVID-19 has not only accelerated the development of online resources, it also underscores the need to use connectivity to keep the economy going. The crisis continues to affect the way schools will work this fall, how restaurants and retail stores do business, and how we travel. The entertainment industry and sporting events have changed. Who would have thought major league sports are played without cheers?
Similarly, telehealth functions need to be expanded to provide additional support to the medical community. A more connected future will help minimize the existing disparities in healthcare. Not only can patients be digitally connected to health care providers, but they can also be connected faster and more efficiently, helping to resolve critical care bottlenecks and provide better treatment in times of crisis. It is a win-win and a desirable solution to existing needs, underscored by the sometimes flawed responses during the current pandemic.
The new normal will be digital, good or bad, but to get the full impact and transformative benefits, it is important to bridge the digital divide.
How to bridge the digital divide
The growing gig economy and remote job opportunities continue to indicate the need for robust digital services on a global scale. The persistent differences between “haves” and “have nots” will adversely affect local and global economies. Quality of life, improved health and safety, education, social mobility, civic engagement and economic opportunities are enhanced through connectivity.
The necessary communication infrastructure requires commitment, collaboration and funding. Interestingly, COVID-19 challenges our bottom line and provides the catalyst for funding. And our heads of government and executives recognize the importance of accelerating the digital future. At the top of the list are investments in fiber and broadband deployment, but they don’t come overnight. Underserved communities can act now to prepare for a plan and proactively seek new funding opportunities that can ensure that the promise of connectivity touches every citizen and community.
Communication networks are a critical infrastructure
Communication networks are an important infrastructure, and reliable broadband is critical to promoting economic opportunity, health and safety, and education, not to mention social mobility, civic engagement and quality of life in communities. With so much dependent on reliable high-speed broadband, it’s time to invest in infrastructure. Earlier this year, the FCC announced the launch of the $ 20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Support in the expansion of rural broadband deployment and provision of a fixed high-speed broadband service for rural households and small businesses.
Many communities have already started planning fiber optic broadband by doing a feasibility study to outline their approach. Black & Veatch is a leader in fiber broadband delivery and finds that communities that take these three steps early in the process save time and money in the back end:
- Review the cost assumptions and business plan. Since not all feasibility studies are conducted to the same extent or to the same depth, it is important to continue positive progress by adding definition and certainty to the model and business assumptions.
- Perform detailed mapping of existing fiber optic facilities. While the information is time consuming, it is of great value in the formal design process and has an impact on project funding. Some companies include this in their comprehensive engineering contract while others find it beneficial to start the process in-house.
- Take action to solve program hurdles. The feasibility study highlights technical, logistical, or regulatory issues that need to be addressed. Manage difficult problems directly and respond to long lead times early on, e.g. B. Service delivery, billing, operational requirements and operational integration.
Once federal funding becomes available, planning the fiber and broadband infrastructure is the first step in creating digital building blocks to ensure communities thrive. When it comes to fiber optic, 5G is soon to follow, meaning rural communities can innovate alongside their urban counterparts, which benefits us all.
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