Who Should Solve the Digital Divide?

Adjit Walia, a Global Technology Strategist at Deutsche Bank suggested in a recent paper that it’s in the best interest of US tech companies to tackle the digital divide. He says that those companies rely on a computer-literate public and workforce and that they ought to take a small sliver of their earnings and invest in students today before they fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.

By tech companies, I assume Walia is talking about Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and the hundred other large corporations that make their money on software and the web. Walia cites a statistic that 61% of existing US jobs and 69% of new jobs require digital literacy and that the tech companies need to be proactive to help make sure that America has the workforce needed for these companies to continue to thrive. I find it interesting that his argument looks at closing the digital literacy gap as an investment that will yield a high return for these companies. I’ve always thought this was the case and that we are never going to solve the digital divide if doing so is viewed somehow as charity.

Walia is specifically referring to the millions of urban students that don’t have home broadband or computers. We have ample evidence that kids without digital tools at home fall far behind other students in achievement. A recent study from the Quello Center at the Michigan State University quantified the impact of the computer gap in a study that neutralized the impact of poverty. The scariest finding of that study is that 11th graders without home computers have the average equivalent digital literacy of 8th graders with home computers.

Walia is proposing a $15 billion plan to be spent over five years. He proposes the solution has three components.

  • He recommends subsiding broadband connections to homes through programs offered by the big cable companies. He says the tech companies should invest $1 billion per year in this effort.
  • He proposes a program to get computers into homes that he estimates at around $1 billion.
  • Finally, the most expensive part of his proposed solution would be a one-year training module for students and adults in the affected households in digital literacy. He estimates the cost of this training at $9 billion over five years.

This is an intriguing idea and I hope that some of the tech companies step up to the concept. Every generation of kids who graduate with poor digital literacy skills is going to struggle for life in an economy that is moving more and more to digital skills.

His solutions are not new, and anybody involved in digital literacy has been seeking these same three solutions for several decades. There are numerous local programs that help kids in cities around the country, but we’ve never had the funding to do this right.

It’s easy to talk about $15 billion as it is an unachievable and gigantic goal. Walia pointed out that the stock value of the biggest tech firms increased by over $2 trillion just since the start of the pandemic. This is an industry that could easily afford to give back some of their earnings, since, as Walia argues, the investment made now will repay these companies many times over through having millions of more citizens who are part of the digital economy.

Walia’s appeal is not just that solving the digital divide is the right thing to do. I doubt you can find anybody who doesn’t understand the consequences of generation after generation of kids who lag behind their peers due to something as simple to fix as broadband. What I like is that Walia has made this an appeal to the pocketbooks of the big companies – and I hope they are listening.