Why bridging the digital divide requires both industry and government

The pandemic revealed that more investment in broadband infrastructure is needed, especially in rural and minority communities, to close the huge disparities in online access.

Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo spoke about the pressing need during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

When Ford became CEO of Land O’Lakes four years ago, the first thing she did was visit rural areas, she said, where she saw the gap in broadband access firsthand.

“What I knew we had to do was put the greatest enabler of our time, technology, in place, because then we can have telemedicine, tele-education; we can access and have job creation,” Ford said.

Along with rural communities, the pandemic exposed the vulnerability of tribal lands and minority communities when it comes to broadband access.

“COVID exposed to all of us that broadband high-speed Internet is not a luxury. Kids who didn’t have it really didn’t go to school for a year,” Raimondo said. “Thirty-five percent of Americans who live in rural America don’t have high-speed Internet; 50% of people who live on tribal lands do not have high-speed Internet.”

Besides just having Internet, employees need digital skills for many high-paying jobs. Without these skills, women will continue to be placed in lower-paid positions, and the U.S. will miss out on their contribution in the workplace, Raimondo said.

“The president asked me to work on U.S. competitiveness,” Raimondo said. “We won’t be competitive as a nation if women aren’t fully deployed in the workforce.”

Raimondo said the Commerce Department is aware of this digital divide and is working to provide Internet for everybody. The department has an initiative for tribal broadband, and Raimondo said she personally played a role in negotiating with the Senate on the broadband portion of President Biden’s infrastructure package, which Congress is considering.

“At the end of the day, if we do our job right, when we’re done with this—$65 billion—every American will have high-speed affordable Internet,” she said.

At the same time, private industry also has a role to fill in bridging the digital divide, said Ford. Launched last summer, Land O’Lakes’ American Connection Project now includes more than 170 organizations that advocate for private and public sector investment in high-speed Internet infrastructure for rural areas. When the COVID pandemic began, the project’s members partnered with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, among others, to provide rural areas access to telemedicine appointments.

Raimondo said private industry is the key to addressing the digital divide.

“Government cannot solve these problems, whether it’s the digital divide, income inequality, job training, infrastructure—we cannot solve it without deep partnership with business,” Raimondo said.

Business leaders must continue to work to make sure government spending is going to projects that will help increase access and digital skills and take equity into account.

“It’s easy to get frustrated with politics,” Raimondo said. “We cannot be as effective if you all opt out. Make your voices heard, educate policymakers, and just stay at the table.”

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