A Better Way To Close the Digital Divide

As 2021 begins, one source of optimism from Congress was the recent enactment of much-needed legislation to expand broadband network availability into rural and tribal areas.

The new emergency stimulus funding includes $300 million to be made available as Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants to target unserved areas for network infrastructure construction that prioritizes funds for counties, cities, or towns with less than 50,000 inhabitants.

An additional $1 billion has been allocated for Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants to deploy fixed broadband infrastructure to tribal lands, along with digital services such as distance education and telehealth.

Congress fell short, however, by not linking national broadband network expansion with greater digital privacy protection.  Increasing the technical reach of broadband networks into rural and tribal areas, while vitally important, should be enhanced by concurrent resources devoted to such privacy protection.

Otherwise, we might find ourselves with more users who have greater online capabilities, but lack sufficient resiliency and individual safeguards for personally identifiable information that can be compromised by various actors in the United States and abroad.

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic reality, we have become even more dependent on digital services (e.g., remote classes, connections with doctors) that require broadband networks for effective utilization.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 18 million Americans lack access to broadband, while the website BroadbandNow estimates 42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed broadband.

Although the numbers may differ in capturing the magnitude of a persistent digital divide, the impact might be even more profound since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to measure how this deficiency affects the quality of life among the unserved in rural and tribal localities.

Focused funding for enhanced broadband network availability should be coupled with a greater focus on digital privacy protection.

Two stipulations for those seeking grants under these new broadband funding programs would go a long way toward providing a necessary linkage between network expansion and digital privacy protection.

First, grant applicants should be required to detail data security measures they will build into their technical plans, and funding preference should be accorded to those who can design better privacy-enhanced networks.

Second, applicants should be required to provide downloadable and continuously updated security software for any home device that connects to a newly installed broadband network.

The best time to capture attention is when the broadband network begins service, and requiring users to demonstrate some minimal amount of privacy proficiency, such as how to create and store passwords safely, before the network’s enhanced capabilities kick in also would be enormously beneficial to those with little or no knowledge about self-help for potential data vulnerabilities.

These requirements will require clear guidelines to be conveyed as the broadband funding programs roll out in the coming weeks and months.

Also, these guidelines would help stimulate innovation among applicants to produce more holistic broadband network expansion plans.

Given the large amounts of money set aside already through bipartisan congressional action, we now have an opportunity to provide vital online capabilities more equitably to unserved areas along with enhancing the digital privacy of those who live there.

Money to be spent is good; money to be well-spent is even better.

Stuart N. Brotman is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and author of Privacy’s Perfect Storm: Digital Policy for Post-Pandemic Times.