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Industry In Focus: Digital Connectivity

Since COVID-19's arrival earlier this year, most businesses began moving operations to living rooms, dining rooms, and spare bedrooms. Overnight, this shift propelled work, leisure, and education to operate entirely in the digital world. The effects expedited a relationship between two existing trends: going digital and the growing digital divide.

Industry professionals now speculate up to 30 percent of the workforce will conduct work from home at least part of the time well past the pandemic. Working from home rose over the past decade, with 4.3 million Americans working remotely, but they made up only 3.2 percent of the workforce. Company culture tends to deter workers from requesting remote opportunities, and managers tend to fear their approval. The last several months proved the potential benefits of decreased internal costs, but equal work output. Major companies like Google suspended their office operations through 2021; Facebook and Twitter will move the majority of their offices entirely online.

Connectivity commonly refers to a person's ability to access fixed, reliable internet and the tools needed to use it. Wandera, a Cloud security company, compiled a list of 74 statistics related to connectivity since the pandemic, including 53 percent of employees used their personal equipment or employers did not provide any. These employees represent one side of the story as they work stable, often corporate jobs. Thirty-eight percent of them noted their struggles with Wi-Fi impacting their work during the initial transition, and some 86 percent felt they needed to prove they worked well from home. On the other side, the wrong side of the digital divide, whole families struggle to operate everyday life without connectivity.

During quarantine, many families needed to go out of their way, often disrupting their children's schedules or safety to obtain free Wi-Fi access (like a McDonald's parking lot) to perform academic or work-related functions. Schools with better funding provided students in need with laptops and devices, but even with them, many kids could never log on. This lack of access is a distinct barrier towards academic success and the ability to improve one's income, which only worsened throughout the pandemic. More widespread smartphone access is still an insufficient substitution to overcome these barriers. When you look at the immediate and short-term effects of the digital divide, you begin to see a larger pattern within a greater inequality system. Connectivity infiltrates systemic racism, the education gap, and the wealth gap.

According to Broadband Now, 42 million Americans are unconnected. A grassroots nonprofit, the Connectivity Foundation, focuses on bridging the digital divide through innovative broadband solutions. There is a significant disparity between the number of unconnected people and the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, reports. The FCC derives its data directly from broadband providers who base their information on coverage areas. If one household in a neighborhood has access to broadband, the whole area is marked as connected. Not only does this lead to the discrepancy, but it also built the misconception that rural areas are the most unconnected. According to market research conducted by the Connectivity Foundation, most not accessing broadband from home live in America's biggest cities. Despite this, most of the Cares Act funding dedicated to broadband went to rural areas and left urban areas fending for themselves.

The problem around connectivity is not always about lack of coverage, but a lack of affordable coverage. Connectivity Foundation designs accessible networks for these untapped markets using shared CBRS spectrum and the latest technology available. Forward-thinking solutions like this show that the future of connectivity lies within the industry's ability to harness one trend, like going digital, to ameliorate the other, the digital divide.

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