This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
The internet provides a plethora of opportunities for people around the world. A device is all someone needs to engage in online commerce, learn, work, and connect with people that they would have never met otherwise. But almost half of the world’s population continues to be deprived of access to the internet. Developing countries have even lower rates of broadband access when compared to the United States: South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa respectively report that only 20% and 19% of their residents are online. According to a 2019 UNESCO publication, the digital divide also cuts across gender lines, with women four times less likely than men to be digitally literate. In her forthcoming book, Dr. Turner-Lee refers to those not connected to the internet as the “digitally invisible”, a new digital underclass primarily consisting of marginalised and disadvantaged populations throughout the world.
The global pandemic revealed just how important online connectivity was—and still is—for millions of people. In the United States, 13% of the population lack access to the internet, primarily because they do not have the physical broadband infrastructure, devices, or the digital literacy required to get online. Disproportionately, many of those without internet access are people of colour, older Americans, people with disabilities, foreign-born and people who live in rural areas. As the country accelerates the use of digital platforms to access basic services, including health care, education and work, these populations of digital invisibles will be left behind.
President Biden and Vice President Harris have introduced a comprehensive economic recovery plan to address and potentially reverse the economic declines from the pandemic, starting with the most aggressive infrastructure proposals since the Great Depression. The focus is on repairing and expanding the nation’s ailing physical infrastructure, including transportation, water, and electric grids. High-speed broadband has joined these usual suspects to increase universal internet access through accelerated network deployment, coupled with nominal investments in digital literacy and training programmes. Such advances will increase the availability of critical infrastructure and related jobs, the growth of smarter and more resilient assets, and the modernisation of businesses and practices.
While Biden’s recovery plan mirrors the efforts of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal era strategies, the focus on 21st century modernisation—or a Tech New Deal—will work towards closing the digital divide. This deal must start by accelerating the physical availability of broadband, addressing the affordability of services and devices, and creating the necessary jobs to build, expand, and teach others about the internet’s value.
However, the New Deal approach to technology should not be exclusive to the United States. It has the potential to be a global framework for the rapid transition from analogue subservience to the inclusion of all in the new digital economy. Reforming the social contract of universal service is at the heart of such policy changes. Countries not only need to determine what problems technology can help solve, but also ensure that it is equitably available with guardrails for online privacy, safety and free speech.
Revitalising the technological infrastructure of local communities in a post-pandemic world involves rendering social supports to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who throughout the pandemic were the problem-solvers and ambassadors for their constituents. Whether through increased funding to NGOs and states, or investments in community service programmes that encourage more participatory solutions, closing the digital divide will require multiple stakeholders to address the problem’s magnitude. President Roosevelt installed the Civilian Corps as part of his New Deal approach to economic recovery, which reskilled people who were not in trades of service to the country. Globally, a digital service corps could be established with some monetary, community service or educational incentives for those willing to build and expand the national and local digital infrastructure. New, credential-based apprenticeships could also target jobs in 5G, cloud-based services and other related support jobs (e.g., data analytics, customer service, trainers, etc.).
Finally, a global plan invites the reimagination of public policies and internet governance models that prioritise digital access alongside economic recovery and social inclusion. People and their communities are at the centre of this framework as the power of technology is leveraged to catalyse change.
How countries confront and remedy the digital divide will be imperative, especially as nations settle into post-COVID realities. Technology has already transformed many vital aspects of our societies. Now, is the time for its potential to close the gaps for those most in need.