As months of remote work, remote school and remote life stubbornly continue, it has become alarmingly clear that the digital divide is holding back some people, while giving others a smooth ride along the so-called information highway.

Rebecca Watts

The digital divide – defined by the continuing gulf between those in our society who have access to computer devices and high-speed Internet and those who do not – is a critical national and state challenge.

It has been estimated that 24 million Americans lack access to broadband internet because of insufficient availability or high cost.  Research from The Third Way has shown that communities that are majority Black are significantly less likely to have broadband access than communities which are majority white. The ramifications for people in these communities are intensified in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts have identified access to high-speed, broadband internet and closing the digital divide as the most effective ways to expand workforce talent pools. An empowered workforce is made up of individuals who have the relevant, modern tools to reach their full potential, because they have the education and training they need to leverage their talents into opportunity. Likewise, that workforce is valuable to employers because they hold the in-demand skills and knowledge needed.

A September 2020 report commissioned by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Dalio Education indicated that 38 percent of residents in five Connecticut cities (Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, New Britain, and Bridgeport) do not have broadband at home, and 36 percent of households with incomes below the state median do not have any connectivity, compared with 11 percent of households with incomes above the median.

Not having access to reliable internet – particularly amidst a pandemic – can be a barrier to achieving a good education, good jobs and the opportunity to build a good future.  As Hartford Foundation for Public Giving President Jay Williams has pointed out, “We must expand our definition of Basic Human Needs to respond to the stark digital divide in our region.” Access to the internet must be recognized as a fundamental societal need, like infrastructure for water and utilities.

Fortunately, in Connecticut encouraging steps are being taken. The City of Hartford should be commended for completing the first phase of the installation of an extensive network of outdoor wireless access points across the city, which will provide a minimum standard speed throughout Hartford at all times, and at no cost to residents. Additionally, the Hartford Public Library was awarded a grant from the national Institute of Museum and Library Services last month to help narrow the digital divide.

Mayor Luke Bronin has described internet connectivity as “an essential part of learning, earning, and living today.” This year’s partnership between the public and private sector — with resources contributed by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Dalio Foundation –- powerfully address this imperative.

Reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the digital divide throughout our society will require continued diligence by all sectors. As Hartford increases access to high-speed internet, it is also essential that the state’s public and private sectors intensify expansive, collaborative efforts focused on job training and workforce development.

Access to broadband internet service and innovative approaches to college education are a winning combination that provides a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. Western Governors University’s (WGU), online, nonprofit and accredited competency-based model develops mastery in students at an affordable cost. Students with access to high-speed internet can work through a degree or credential program at their own pace, when time allows in their busy schedules.

Because our mission at WGU is to serve historically under-represented communities in higher education, and we recognize the importance of having access broadband internet access to change lives for the better, we have created the Online Access Scholarship program. The $1 million scholarship program will grant high-speed internet access and devices to students who need and can’t afford them or don’t have access to them and is part of a broader WGU initiative aimed at working with policymakers, funders, and private industry to close the digital divide.

We cannot afford to let broadband internet speeds serve as a barrier between the region’s businesses and the talent they require to thrive and grow. Moving forward in a landscape dramatically changed by COVID-19 will require all of us working together to raise the bar academically and economically for everyone in Connecticut.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students nationwide, including 700 students and 1,200 alumni in Connecticut.

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