The fruits of digital innovation are not shared equally. An invisible but very real digital divide separates those of us who’ve gotten ahead in the information age and those of us in danger of being left behind.
Some aspects of the digital divide have persisted for years or decades. Take broadband access. According to the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report, 19 million Americans—6% of the population—lack reliable broadband access at threshold speeds. About a quarter of all rural Americans lack reliable broadband.
Other aspects have deepened or arisen anew amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions of office-bound U.S. professionals switched to remote work virtually overnight as the pandemic set in. Many continue to work remotely; some may never set foot in a shared office again. Yet millions of others had no choice but to continue working in-person, often at great personal risk. For them, the professionals’ daily drudgery of Zoom meetings and Slack chats was and is a pleasant but distant dream.
As the pandemic era shades into something resembling normalcy, employers and other stakeholders across the U.S. and beyond are stepping up to address the digital divide. It’s difficult, ongoing work, but these efforts offer some reason for optimism.
1. Investing in Digital Healthcare Solutions
As the pandemic set in, U.S. regulators relaxed long-standing restrictions on telehealth services. Providers cheered the move as heralding a new era in U.S. healthcare delivery—one where patients would no longer need to travel for hours to access specialty or even routine care in person.
The rise of telehealth and digital healthcare apps is particularly promising for behavioral health providers capable of delivering high-quality remote care in the right regulatory environment. Digital behavioral health investment has skyrocketed in the pandemic era, notes Stuart Archer, CEO of Dallas-based Oceans Healthcare. But in spite of sensible pandemic reforms, that regulatory environment remains elusive.
“Forward-thinking providers must continue to advocate for meaningful payment reform and enforcement of parity laws that support our ability to deliver this essential care,” says Archer. “We must also invest in new ways to integrate digital tools into the delivery of in-person care—before, during and after treatment.”
2. Subsidizing High-Speed Home Internet for Employees
The early pandemic shift to remote work was smoother than many employers feared because many white-collar employees already had high-speed home internet and the other “must-haves” of a productive home office. But these capabilities weren’t universally shared; many ill-equipped employees languished.
In response, some employers have gone above and beyond to equip their employees with high-speed home Internet. Costly as it is to cover the cost of installing and maintaining enterprise-grade broadband in a home environment, these employers treat it as a necessary business expense in a future that doesn’t distinguish between “home” and “the office.”
“Businesses are navigating new territory when it comes to expenses related to working from home,” Analisse Dunne, people operations manager at Nulab, tells SHRM. “It’s more important than ever to ensure that workers have the equipment and resources they need to get their job done.”
3. Offering Affordable Financial Solutions for the Unbanked
More than 5% of U.S. households still lack a bank account. In fiscal policy parlance, they’re unbanked.
These Americans face a litany of direct and indirect costs, including predatory interest on credit products like payday loans and fees on check-cashing services. Because most of the unbanked are in the bottom quartile of U.S. earners, these costs fall on those who can least afford them.
Fortunately, the financial industry is experiencing a wave of innovation that’s bringing affordable, scalable money management solutions to this underserved cohort. Using cash transfer apps like PayPal and Venmo and paycheck advance apps 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 share of unbanked U.S. households will continue to decline.
The Digital Divide Won’t Close Itself
The digital divide took years to evolve to its present state. It certainly won’t close itself, unless by “close itself” we mean “close in response to concerted, urgent action by those with a stake in a more equitable digital future.”
Fortunately, those stakeholders are doing important work to address the digital divide right now. They’re investing in digital healthcare delivery solutions in an effort to modernize a vast and essential swath of the economy. They’re providing teams with enterprise-grade Internet in the comfort of home. They’re delivering badly needed digital finance solutions for people left out of the global monetary system.