The fruits of digital innovation are not shared equally. An invisible but very real digital divide separates those of us who have advanced in the information age and those of us who are in danger of being left behind.
Some aspects of the digital divide have been around for years or decades. Take broadband access. According to Eighth broadband progress report from the FCC, 19 million Americans – 6% of the population – do not have reliable broadband access at threshold speeds. About a quarter of all rural Americans lack reliable broadband.
Other aspects have deepened or re-emerged in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic. When the pandemic set in, millions of US office workers switched to remote work virtually overnight. Many continue to work remotely; some may never enter the same office again. But millions of others had no choice but to continue working personally, often at great personal risk. For them, the daily drudgery of the pros at zoom meetings and slack chats was and is a pleasant, but distant dream.
As the era of the pandemic drifts into some normalcy, employers and other stakeholders in the U.S. and beyond scramble to bridge the digital divide. It is difficult, ongoing work, but such efforts give cause for optimism.
1. Invest in digital health solutions
As the pandemic set in, U.S. regulators eased long-standing restrictions on telehealth services. Providers hailed the move as it ushered in a new era in US health care – one in which patients no longer have to travel for hours to get special or even routine care in person.
The rise of telemedicine and digital health apps is particularly promising for behavioral therapy providers capable of delivering high quality remote care in the right regulatory environment. Investment in behavioral digital health has skyrocketed in the age of the pandemic, notes Stuart Archer, CEO of Dallas Oceans health care. But despite sensible pandemic reforms, this regulatory environment remains elusive.
“Forward-looking providers must continue to advocate meaningful payment reform and enforcement of parity laws that support our ability to provide this essential service,” says Archer. “We also need to invest in new ways to integrate digital tools into personal care – before, during and after treatment.”
2. Subsidizing high-speed home internet for employees
The early pandemic switch to remote work went more smoothly than many employers feared, as many employees already had high-speed Internet at home and the other “must-haves” of a productive home office. But these skills were not commonly shared; many poorly equipped employees withered.
In response, some employers have made every effort to provide their employees with high-speed Internet at home. As expensive as it is to cover the cost of installing and maintaining broadband in a home environment, these employers treat it as a necessary business expense in a future where no distinction is made between “home” and “office”.
“Companies are breaking new ground when it comes to work-from-home expenses,” said Analisse Dunne, people operations manager at Nulab SHRM. “It is more important than ever to make sure that employees have the equipment and resources they need to do their jobs.”
3. Offer affordable financial solutions to non-banks
More than 5% of US households still do not have a bank account. In financial policy parlance, they do not have a bank account.
These Americans face a litany of direct and indirect costs, including predatory interest on credit products like payday loans and check cashing service fees. Since most people without a bank account are in the bottom quartile of U.S. earners, these costs fall on those who can least afford it.
Fortunately, the financial industry is experiencing a wave of innovation that brings affordable, scalable money management solutions to this underserved cohort. With cash transfer apps like PayPal and Venmo and paycheck prepayments like Brigit, consumers can now manage their finances without relying on predatory lenders or hoarding physical cash. As these solutions become more sophisticated and user-friendly, the proportion of US households with no bank account will continue to decline.
The digital divide won’t close by itself
It took the digital divide years to develop into what it is today. It will certainly not close on its own unless by “closing itself” we mean “in response to concerted, urgent action by those interested in a more equitable digital future”.
Fortunately, these stakeholders are doing important work right now to bridge the digital divide. They are investing in digital healthcare solutions to modernize a large part of the economy. They provide enterprise-class Internet for teams in the comfort of their homes. They deliver much-needed digital finance solutions for people excluded from the global monetary system.