The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The part of the broadband debate we’re missing


THE INTERNET is no longer a luxury but a necessity, and President Biden’s infrastructure plan reflects that reality. Lawmakers generally understand that to get the whole country connected, they’ll have to make service more available as well as more affordable. But other areas that receive less notice deserve the same attention.

The National Urban League’s Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion wants to ensure that everyone can fully participate in the world the Web has created — from their education as children to their employment as adults to their health all along the way. The proposal, which emphasizes how historically marginalized groups have seen inequities compounded by a disproportionate lack of access to the Web, is chock full of recommendations for bringing broadband to those whose homes aren’t served or for whom service is too expensive. Yet the plan is most helpful in pointing out two additional gaps to bridge.

The first of these is what the report’s authors call digital readiness. There is little point in paying for an Internet plan if you don’t know how to use the Internet. The same goes for understanding how to operate a computer or tablet. But as many as half of Americans remain reluctant to explore online education because they are concerned they lack the technological skill; more than one-third of older adults have missed out of video visits with medical professionals this past year for similar reasons; workers unstudied in navigating the Web can’t fill plenty of good jobs.

Then there’s the so-called utilization gap, jargon for the gulf between what we could be doing with the networks we already have and what we’re actually doing. Government services are poorly digitized: The report recalls governors scrambling at the beginning of the pandemic to find retired programmers who could rescue antiquated and overwhelmed benefit systems. When Florida’s unemployment site crashed, citizens put their health at risk to stand line in person for paper forms. Industry and policymakers don’t take advantage of jobs data that could help them pair some citizens with openings and train others; schools don’t take advantage of the possibility for expanded curriculums and individualized learning. Telehealth, too, can’t reach its full potential under outdated restrictions on providers.

The Lewis Latimer Plan’s recommendations are ambitious, including a new office of digital equity, a national digital literacy program with a workforce of “digital navigators” and more. Congress ought to study whether those are the right answers — but these questions are certainly the right ones to ask. Treating broadband as infrastructure is the right approach, yet for the investment to pay off, we must build more than wires.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Biden wants to get all Americans online. That won’t be easy.

Catherine Rampell: Republicans desperate to oppose Biden’s jobs plan settle on a nonsense reason

The Post’s View: A smart use for $50 billion of covid relief funds: Broadband

The Post’s View: Here’s what Biden can do right now to get more Americans on the Internet

Brooke Lierman: Maryland needs better broadband — everywhere