Op-Ed: Closing the Digital Divide
By Ben Doko, Local Activist
In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Washington’s communities have had to totally rethink the way we live our lives. With our schools, workplaces, and even some medical care going fully online, fast and reliable internet access is an absolute necessity for modern life.
Thanks to important technological advances like 5G internet making our new way of life possible, we are on the brink of a smarter, more connected nation than ever before. To fully realize the possibilities of this new economy, we cannot let internet access be available only to our wealthy residents. Ensuring our lower-income communities have access to this innovation must be a priority.
5G internet and widespread broadband access is the foundation we need to deploy Internet of Things (IoT) technology across our state, or the network of physical objects like appliances and home maintenance systems all connected by the internet. More advanced internet will also enable important innovations like smart cities with advanced electric grids that can better regulate the flow of traffic, avoid power outages during major storms, and use energy in a greener and more efficient way.
Our nation’s rapidly emerging 5G smart economy can also improve the health of everyday people through telemedicine, or remote diagnosis and medical treatment. Staff at the American Medical Association estimate that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of U.S. physicians now offer telemedicine services, compared to just 14 percent in 2016. Telemedicine can expand a patient’s care options beyond their geographic location, which is especially beneficial to low-income patients who may not live near a hospital or a particular specialist. 5G internet will make sure telemedicine operations run smoothly by providing more reliable image and audio quality.
In addition, 5G can boost existing mobile internet networks like 4G, which is crucial for our low-income residents. Low-income residents are more likely to rely on mobile broadband as their primary internet source.
Broadband access for all, no matter your income level, is a critical component to our nation’s new 5G economy yet accessibility remains a problem. In 2019, Pew Research Center reported that half of Americans who did not have broadband internet at home cited high costs as a major factor. Pew also found that only 56 percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 per year have home broadband internet, but that percentage goes up to 92 for Americans who make $75,000 or more. In an age where nearly everything is online, this is unacceptable.
Luckily, federal leaders are already working on cost-effective policies to increase access to broadband and 5G. By enabling construction of middle mile fiber optic cables along existing utility power lines, internet service providers can use this infrastructure to expand to unreached places. President Biden and Congress are also pushing for more subsidies and funding to keep internet access affordable and widespread. Washington’s own Sen. Maria Cantwell is on the frontlines of this revolution, advocating for middle mile infrastructure construction and working diligently to include crucial subsidies for broadband expansion the COVID-19 relief bills.
While our leaders in Washington can do a lot to expand broadband access, it’s clear that we need to utilize all possible solutions to bridge this divide. Fortunately, our business community is also ready and willing to take on this challenge. Both SpaceX and Amazon’s bold plans to build satellites will help bring broadband to more Americans and increase industry competition. In a groundbreaking effort, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative will leverage unused gaps between active TV channels in certain spectrum bands called TV white spaces to further expand broadband access. Even better, companies like Ligado are building national networks with unused spectrum that will support 5G and IoT technology for everyone. We should encourage these kinds of innovations that will close the digital divide while increasing healthy competition between providers to lower prices and improve internet service quality.
As we enter this revolution of connectivity, we need to ensure low-income communities have the same resources that wealthier communities have. By combining robust public policy with technological innovation, we can finally bridge the digital divide.
Ben Doko is a local activist who volunteers for progessive causes nationwide and works in the hospitality industry. He is originally from Jakarta, Indonesia and has lived in the Seattle area since 2000.