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The Infrastructure Act Alone Won’t Create Digital Equity

The federal government’s historic investment in broadband could fall short of its goals if it doesn’t improve digital skills. A leading expert explains the importance of digital human capital.

The Garfield Park Library in Indianapolis. Libraries have played a significant role in helping citizens develop computer literacy.
(Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar/TNS)
(TNS) — Last week, the Biden administration launched a $45 billion Internet for All initiative. This historic investment aims to ensure that every American will have tools to thrive in a digital economy by the end of the decade. “In the 21st century, you simply cannot participate in the economy if you don’t have access to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet,” said Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo.

The initiative represents a key element in implementing last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Although there’s been a lot of discussion about the “digital divide” hampering rural economies, other groups are in danger of being left behind.

According to the National Skills Coalition, half of Black workers and 57 percent of Latino workers have “limited” or “no” digital skills.

The Deutsche Bank warns that the great majority of Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S. could be ineligible for 86 percent of available jobs by 2045 because they lack digital skills. They lag behind white workers in Internet access by 10 years, according to the bank. If such racial gaps are not closed, minorities could fall into an “employment abyss” within a generation.

“Just like education is a proxy measure in a lot of ways, a broadband subscription is a proxy measure,” says Karen Mossberger, director of the Center on Technology, Data and Society at Arizona State University. “It means that someone has regular access to the Internet, access to information and the chance to develop skills.”

Broadband use matters even more than broadband availability, Mossberger says. “We can see consistently that broadband adoption matters for economic outcomes,” she says. “The basis for these benefits is more than just infrastructure; it’s about the ability of people to use it, and their access to information and skills.”

Mossberger spoke with Governing about “digital human capital,” a central economic concept in her most recent book, Choosing the Future. She and co-authors Caroline Tolbert and Scott LaCombe recently received a prize for the work from Harvard University.

Governing: What led you to the concept of digital human capital?

Karen Mossberger: A lot of research has focused on broadband availability or infrastructure and economic outcomes for communities. There's been a consensus that availability and infrastructure matter, but we know that's not the same as how broadband is actually getting used in communities.

We know that not everybody's online. Economists have argued that in a knowledge- and information-intensive economy, what really counts for economic development is human capital, the skills and the education that the workforce has.

Governing: How can broadband build this kind of capital?

Mossberger: Broadband use can help people develop skills for jobs, for entrepreneurship, for economic activity and for innovation. This has multipliers and spillover effects for the community. Like education, digital capital benefits the community as well as the individual.

One of the arguments about why major cities are so innovative and productive is that they have dense networks of businesses, dense networks of diverse, highly educated populations. Broadband has these network effects, too.

We're not talking just about the physical networks, but the local information networks and interactions. These promote innovation and economic activity as well. The more inclusive these networks are, the greater the economic benefits should be — and that's what we found, for community prosperity, median income and employment.

Governing: Does a community have to be a tech hub to see big benefits?

Mossberger: A lot of the focus on technology has been on landing high-tech firms, competing to be a tech hub. That's not the only way that technology affects local economic development because it's truly integrated into all kinds of jobs across industry sectors, across occupations.
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Karen Mossberger: "“We can see consistently that broadband adoption matters for economic outcomes. The basis for these benefits is more than just infrastructure; it’s about the ability of people to use it, and their access to information and skills."
It's not just a matter of landing technology firms. It's how technology is used across the economy, in all kinds of jobs at all types of education levels. Looking toward the future, having people in the community who are familiar with broadband and have the skills to use it is going to mean a lot for resilience, for dealing with economic changes.

Some of the research that my co-author Caroline Tolbert and I did a few years back showed how technology use at work mattered nearly as much for the wages of workers with only a high school education as for college-educated workers.

We need widespread technology use in all communities to support local economic development. Our book demonstrates this, across different types of communities over 17 years, controlling for all the other factors that influence economic development.

Governing: How much funding should there be to foster this consumption?

Mossberger: I'm encouraged because the federal legislation, the IIJA, and before that the ARPA legislation, recognize that there's a need for more than just building the infrastructure. But addressing infrastructure alone doesn't mean the problem is solved, especially in poor communities.

There is funding available to subsidize low-income individuals to get connected, more funding than there has been in past. The IIJA also provides resources for subsidizing devices, for training and for outreach. Outreach is going to be really important, to make sure that people know about the resources that are there, to provide support for people once they go online.

There’s an opportunity now, but a lot depends on what happens at the state and local level. States are responsible for submitting plans about how they're going to spend the funds.

Governing: What kinds of things would improve these plans?

Mossberger: It’s critically important that county and city governments be involved. Needs are going to differ between urban and rural communities and even within cities, across different neighborhoods with different demographic populations.

It's going to be important to talk to organizations that work in low-income communities, small-business organizations, community-based organizations in Black and Latino communities. Look for trusted partners who have a record of working in these communities, who know what the patterns of Internet use and barriers are and who's most likely to be left behind.

There’s a window now to address these needs as well as the infrastructure.

Governing: How can they design this kind of pre-planning work?

Mossberger: Communities are going to need to understand these issues in a way that they haven't before. In some communities, it may take some understanding of both infrastructure issues and digital inclusion, such as issues around adoption. In other places, the problem may be more a matter of affordability and training and support.

Our center is working with the Marconi Society to put together a non-degree certificate program for public officials and community-based organizations to help them think about what data they need, the kinds of partnerships and coalitions they need to build, how to address outreach. We’re going to be piloting it this fall.

There are a lot of local-government managers who are great managers and know how to plan and implement programs, but don't know a lot about this area.

Governing: Does keeping attention on the user side of broadband implementation offer other benefits?

Mossberger: At the end of the day, government is responsible for the welfare of citizens.

Broadband use can help ensure the public interest in many different ways — economic development, health care, public safety, civic engagement, access to government services. It helps individual residents, but it also adds to the quality of life in a community.