The term “digital divide” has moved into the mainstream, as the pandemic revealed how unforgiving life can be for those disconnected from the internet. As Americans have been forced to work, learn, and socialize from home, many in rural and low-income communities have found getting and staying online a major challenge.

At $65 billion, broadband funding from the now enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), will be the largest-ever digital infrastructure investment and the first since the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated $4.7 billion to close the digital divide.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will play the biggest role in the distribution of these funds, allocating $48.2 billion of the $65 billion to states for broadband deployment and adoption. Poised to distribute the largest pot of money to expand affordable, high-speed broadband access and digital inclusion programs, policymakers and even some advocacy groups must first focus on defining the problem and expected outcomes in order for this to work.

The digital divide dates to the early 2000s, when former NTIA Assistant Secretary Larry Irving called out the concept, offering a then-binary view into disparate access to technology. The digital divide depicted those with and without access to the internet, a compatible device, or both. Back then, digital literacy programs were critical because some policymakers and advocates believed that poor people needed computer basics, like how to use email and word processing programs.

Today, the need for computer skills and access has grown exponentially, changing how individuals interact. Yet politicians have still failed to bridge the digital divide, having previously expended resources on program models that have not necessarily scaled or sustained digital inclusion before the pandemic. Even with IIJA funds, the federal government will once again fail to address digital disparities without a clear definition of the problems being solved and a lack of substantive feedback from local stakeholders who understand the conditions of their communities.

Part of this failure rests on the reliance of policymakers on regulatory guidance from communications policies drafted before the contemporary internet, and their sole focus on accelerating broadband access instead of economic mobility and social justice for the digitally disenfranchised. If prior policies worked well to close the digital divide, we would not be racing to the bottom to ensure equitable access. Getting people connected to affordable broadband and a device are only partial solutions to narrowing the digital divide. We often forget that people still need the required financial collateral like a bank or credit card to take advantage of now-digitized services like ridesharing and e-commerce.

Which brings me to this: The severity of the digital divide goes beyond the usual analogy of a three-legged stool — broadband availability, affordability, and digital literacy. Policymakers must acknowledge that efforts to close the digital divide should also address poverty, geographic, and social isolation.

Read the full article about the digital divide by Nicol Turner Lee at Brookings.