Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, access to affordable broadband internet became a significant challenge for many Americans. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center provided a concerning look at how broadband internet affordability disproportionately impacts lower-income households, those with a high school education or less and minority populations.
The Pew survey demonstrated the far-reaching impact of broadband internet costs on American families. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must not overlook concerns regarding broadband affordability that have existed in Pennsylvania for years. Affordable broadband access remains a significant threat to ongoing workforce development initiatives aimed at strengthening and growing our economy at a time when we need it most.
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.
The need for broadband internet spans all ages and geographic locations in the commonwealth — from Pennsylvania’s rural communities to our cities. While the Federal Communications Commission estimates as many as 800,000 Pennsylvanians live without high-speed internet, research from Pennsylvania State University estimates the true number of Pennsylvanians without broadband is likely closer to 11 million.
Broadband internet service is not luxury item that is simply used to stream movies at home or provide entertainment. It is a vital community resource that residents utilize for education, employment, health care and other essential activities.
Access to affordable broadband internet is considered a key factor in quality of life standards for Pennsylvania communities. Securing equitable access for all Pennsylvania residents is more than an investment in infrastructure, it is also an investment in the commonwealth’s labor force and the talent pipelines that feed businesses and support local economies.
Despite growing dependence on high-speed internet for school, work, health care and more, only four states meet or exceed the federal target of 25 megabytes per second (Mpbs) for broadband. Though Pennsylvania is not among them, we are uniquely poised to serve as a national broadband leader. Late last year, Gov. Tom Wolf announced $15 million for schools to secure broadband, mobile hot spots and other platforms that increase equitable access to remote learning. These efforts work best when they also extend to higher education and provide pathways for Pennsylvanians to pursue the skills and qualifications employers trust.
As Pennsylvania addresses concerns about access to high-speed internet, the state’s public and private sectors must also commit to expansive, collaborative efforts focused on job training and workforce development. These efforts should start with developing enduring and transformative partnerships with local partners, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, and local and regional membership-based associations. It is also critical to establish alliances with local businesses to support their human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees.
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 in the commonwealth. Pennsylvania must commit its full attention to closing the digital divide by focusing on infrastructure and working with local community partners on a statewide plan that will make affordable, high-speed broadband available to every resident, regardless of income or geography.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university that serves more than 2,600 students in Pennsylvania.