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Will the Next President Fix the Digital Divide?

Hillary Clinton has a plan; Donald Trump doesn’t. But digital connectivity has never really been about national scope.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: socsci/Flickr)

As I’ve spent the past few months examining efforts to close the digital divide, a portentous cloud has loomed overhead. Americans are not living in a normal period of time. We’re living in 2016, the election year to end all election years, where news reports read like a Thomas Pynchon novel, and all those preachers spreading tales of apocalyptic doom seem sensible.

More and more, it feels like we’re at some crossroads of history, and things can go in two very different directions. Now, I’m not here to get into all of that because, can you imagine? But I do want to prognosticate about how the next president will affect the work being done to get everyone online.

Of the two finalists left, only one has a plan.

Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure plan has clear declarations to continue efforts by the Obama administration, including an entire section devoted to how her administration will “finish the job of connecting America’s households to the Internet, committing that by 2020, 100 percent of households in America will have access to affordable broadband that delivers world-class speeds sufficient to meet families’ needs.” The plans don’t go into too much detail — that’s par for the course as these things go — but do show an effort to continue the strides that have been made:

In addition, Clinton is committed to expanding the Obama Administration’s efforts to connect “anchor” institutions — like public school and public libraries — to high-speed broadband. She will invest new federal resources so that train stations, airports, mass transit systems, and other public buildings can have access to gigabit connectivity and can provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

She also mentions that fostering the evolution from 4G networks to 5G, as well as deployment of new unlicensed and shared spectrum, are essential to supporting the Internet of Things.

Since the digital divide does not include the building of walls, the forced deportation of specific immigrant populations, or a singular foe that lends him or herself to a pithy enough nickname to fit into Twitter’s 140 characters, Trump hasn’t said much, if anything, about the digital divide. It is difficult to determine how he would address the problem without any details.

Whomever is elected will most certainly have a top-down impact. But digital connectivity has never really been about national scope. Federal funds earmarked from ConnectHome’s pilot program to bring broadband to low-income communities are necessary, but unless there are people on the ground in the underconnected communities — as well as local officials who know how best to use the funds — not a whole lot gets done. White House involvement has been a last-nudge-over-the-top kind of thing.

“There’s a lot of natural, local momentum around these issues,” says Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Drive, a non-profit organization focused on closing Kansas City’s digital divide. “I don’t think it’s obvious whether the White House involvement spurs additional activity, rides the wave, or politicizes some issues that seem to enjoy bipartisan support.”

A new boss is coming to town one way or another, and no one knows what programs they’re going to gut, tweak, or even expand.

On the state level, addressing the digital divide does not seem to have any party affiliation. During interviews with non-profits, I’ve asked whether Democrats or Republicans have been more focused on this issue. By and large, the response has been neither. When I spoke to Luke Marwell from EducationSuperHighway, and he mentioned that 39 of 50 governors had publicly committed to providing broadband, I pressed him on a political breakdown of the remaining 11. “We just haven’t been able to get to talk to those governors yet,” he says. “Nobody from either party has said broadband isn’t important.”

But will that sentiment remain after election day? It’s tough to say, mostly because no one knows what to expect. And so when I ask around to various digital divide non-profits about how their work will be affected when the next president takes office, no one has a good answer for how to project the future of their programs.

“My only hope for the upcoming election is that the next administration will continue, or even expand upon, the positive momentum in the expansion of broadband access, adoption, and use that we’ve experienced over the last eight years,” says Eric Frederick, the executive director of Connected Nation, a national non-profit aiming to expand use and availability of broadband.

“The thing I’m curious about is how much turnover there is in the federal types I work with on all sorts of broadband issues,” Deacon says. “Do all those folks turn over regardless of the next president? Would Hillary keep Obama’s people? Would Trump? No idea what the replacements would be like.” In other words, this prognostication is the same general question that comes with any regime change. A new boss is coming to town one way or another, and no one knows what programs they’re going to gut, tweak, or even expand. “[My] gut feeling is the election won’t change much,” Deacon says. “But that’s not with much conviction.”