Workers feed cabling through a fresh ditch to install new telecommunications lines in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on Nov. 23, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a tumultuous year for families and businesses across the country, and issues that have laid dormant for too long are now coming to light.

A recent Gallup survey showed about one in three Americans are working remotely as a result of the pandemic, and about two-thirds of those working from home would like to continue to do so. 

This shift to telecommuting was met with a need for technological advancements that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. The rapid growth of reliable high-speed internet across the United States helped make remote work and online learning essential for Americans to provide for their families and ensure children continue to receive their education. 

Rose Jerez

While many broadband providers successfully acclimated to the surge in demand for reliable internet access, the pandemic also cracked open a complicated vulnerability across the country: the digital divide. 

The gap between those who have access to high-speed, reliable internet services and those who do not is most evident for those who live in more rural, remote areas.

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission reported that over one-fifth of rural Americans do not have access to broadband, while other reports have estimated the number may be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of connectivity where, according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans say the internet has become an essential resource.

The digital divide is also evident in about 15% of U.S. households where students do not have access to a high-speed internet connection, according to another Pew analysis. This affects lower-income families as well, where roughly one-third of households with children ages six to 17 and whose annual income falls below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6% of such households earning $75,000 or more a year lacking such a connection, based on the findings.

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With a new presidential administration and the urgent need to address the pains caused by the digital divide during a pandemic, it is time for the private and public sectors to work together to take action and bridge the gap. 

For broadband providers like my Colorado-based company, WOW!, an effective relationship with policymakers is paramount to the success in bringing internet connectivity to millions of American families. 

Here are three things both providers and legislators should consider:

1. Use data to identify where the need is greatest. Nobody knows their broadband customers and markets better than providers. The FCC recently launched the first phase of its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to provide internet companies with $20 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years to build out broadband networks in underserved parts of the country. 

Although a promising first step, it is critical for providers to work closely with the FCC to gain a clear map of accurate coverage in these rural areas and invest in growing network infrastructure where connectivity is vastly underserved.

2. Ensure adequate broadband speeds for rural areas. Addressing internet access is the first step to understanding the divide. But underscoring the need for adequate and reliable broadband speed is the second. Support for faster internet speed is now coming into sharp focus with the influx of video conferencing in both remote learning and work. 

Regulatory barriers like prohibiting “overbuilding,” which refers to the construction of new, competitive networks in an area with an existing network, may hinder a provider’s ability to invest in delivering high-speed network infrastructure by stifling competition and choice. This leaves customers in rural areas without the choice to decide which broadband provider best serves their needs and budgets. 

3. Providers should partner with local governments and organizations within their markets. Providers looking to expand in underserved areas should be keen to work with the local governments and organizations that are addressing the need to bridge the gap. 

For example, WOW! joined ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized cable operators, and EducationSuperHighway’s “K-12 Bridge to Broadband” program to help school districts and states provide Internet access for students in low-income households. WOW! has also started implementing its newest program, WOW! Internet Select 30, with a similar goal of providing broadband access to low-income households to help bridge the digital equity divide. 

As broadband providers look for ways to manage increased usage and expand network infrastructure, understanding the urgency and growing support for bridging the gap in the digital divide has never been clearer than it is now. As millions of American families stay home, it is more important than ever to stay connected to what matters most.

Rose Jerez is vice president of customer success at WOW!, a broadband services provider based in the Denver Tech Center, and has 25 years of sales and marketing experience in the media and entertainment industry. WOW! is the trade name of WideOpenWest Inc.

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