Broadband is a basic necessity to communicate in the 21st century. According to a recent Pew report, now more than ever Americans see home Internet service as a key tool for accessing information that is important to their lives. This includes everything from applying for jobs and getting health information, to keeping up on the world around them and learning new things. Yet, a population close to that of California — roughly 34 million people — lacks access to broadband in the U.S.
That’s why I recently joined a bipartisan group of 44 mayors and city officials in supporting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to modernize its Lifeline program and increase broadband connectivity for low-income families. (Currently, Lifeline provides for discounts on phone services.)
As local leaders we can and should be partners on ambitious initiatives that serve our most vulnerable, but we can’t stop there. We also have to shape our own equity vision for the communities we serve.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, where I just began my term as mayor, I see firsthand the wonderful promise of technology and the stark reality that too many Charlotte working families will be left behind — if we don’t tackle the digital divide.
On one end of the spectrum, Charlotte boasts a powerhouse banking industry — second largest in the U.S. — that is also creating new jobs in the emerging financial technology sector. We also have a small business community that is driving local innovation. Yet in the same place Google labels as one of the top “eCities” in the nation, according to the 2014 American Community Survey, tens of thousands of households in Charlotte are not connected to the Internet.
Additionally, more than 40 percent of residents in certain Mecklenburg County communities do not use the Internet anywhere. This lack of connectivity disproportionately affects our minority communities, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots and preventing opportunity from spreading into entire neighborhoods.
The lack of Internet access can also stymie potential small businesses by cutting off the resources needed for research and development as well as hamstringing sales and marketing efforts that are often conducted after hours and on weekends. With customer connectivity being king in the Internet age, far too many small businesses, particularly ones owned by women and minorities, struggle to make the connections necessary for success.
For our kids, the digital divide produces even greater consequences. That’s because today, roughly 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires access to the Internet. When kids lack access to online resources at home, they fall even further behind their connected peers. This “homework gap” is a real problem for us, as half of North Carolina’s children are in low-income families.
If our future business leaders in Charlotte, and across the country, aren’t given an equal opportunity to learn, we all suffer.
This is why education is a cornerstone of my focus, starting with after-school programs. Currently, there is no group or organization in Charlotte in charge of monitoring and assessing the gaps, and ensuring that our kids have constructive, positive programs. I am convening a summit on after-school time to determine how to ensure that all our children have access to quality after-school programs, and addressing the homework gap will be an integral piece of this initiative.
City leaders must work to ensure that our residents, regardless of income, have the opportunity to take advantage of the prospering technology hotbeds that are emerging in places large and small, from Charlotte to Atlanta.
We cannot have two different tiers of Internet access, and programs like Lifeline help address one of the main reasons families don’t have Internet access: affordability.
We also have to continue pursuing public-private partnerships with companies like Google, which plans to build out fiber connections in Charlotte, and make sure that new offerings don’t just reinforce existing inequities.
As municipal leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that the promise of technology reaches all corners of our cities.
Jennifer Roberts is the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina.