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Pandemic as an Opportunity to Address Digital Inequality

Eli (Ilaha) Omar
May 21 · 7 min read

Private LTE networks over CBRS will make a difference

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In 1976, M. F. Weiner wrote an article in the journal Medical Economics entitled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” His intention was to encourage physicians to use a crisis as an opportunity to create positive change. The same can be said about technology. For decades now, conversation on the digital divide has lingered with not enough action. Today, COVID-19 has starkly brought this issue to the forefront and we now have a societal sea change opportunity to address it.

In our new COVID-19 era, millions of Americans are learning, working, socializing and shopping from home. This pandemic has emerged as an unexpected catalyst for a new norm where reliable high-speed internet has become the primary connection to the outside world. Social distancing mandates have led Fortune 500 companies to reimburse their employees for home-office upgrades including faster internet connections, larger monitors, or even online Yoga sessions in an effort to minimize disruption to worker collaboration and productivity. Schools and parents are navigating uncharted territories with setting up in-home classrooms and managing distance learning for students and children. Each day is filled with Zoom calls, Houseparty happy hours, groceries or meals ordered and delivered via Instacart, DoorDash or UberEats, and entertainment via YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu. According to Apptopia, an app that provides analytics and business intelligence for the mobile industry, as of March 22, Zoom’s daily active user count is up 378% while monthly active users were up 186%. In the past month, Houseparty has seen a surge of 50 million new sign-ups; in some markets, this is about 70 times above normal. In short, the network has become the central nervous system of our COVID-19 life and the pandemic has taught us that broadband access to the Internet is a necessity, not a luxury.

The Digital Divide

As the urban and affluent have adjusted to their lives in this new connected world, the same cannot be said about those who live in broadband deserts such as rural areas or inner-cities. For those with limited socioeconomic means living in areas with poor connectivity, the key issue is the availability of reliable broadband services. For those with limited disposable income, including millions who have recently become unemployed, it is an issue of being able to afford the right devices and being able to pay for access to the Internet. The lack of access and affordability in these marginalized communities results in people who are cut off from this post-COVID-19 world as they are unable to access employment, schools, medical services, banking, and therefore, life as it exists today. Many school districts across the nation are confronted with disparities as children who lack access to computers or broadband Internet at home now lack access to education. Of the poorest quarter of American children, one in four do not have access to a computer at home. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 30 million US residents do not have access to broadband. According to the ConnectHome survey conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on 28 low-income housing communities across the country from November 2015 to June 2016, 80% of those surveyed cited the cost of access as a major contributor to lack of in-home internet access. Another major contributor was the lack of affordable devices. These and other contributors are captured in the below graph.

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Note: Respondents could check more than one category. Source: U.S. Department of HUD, 2016. “Baseline Internet Access Among Communities: Results from the National Evaluation of ConnectHomes.”

To remedy this problem, the government must recognize broadband access as a human right and provide incentives to the private sector so that it can build the network needed to provide access. Furthermore, the government must do more to subsidize smart devices for low-income families in much the same way it subsidizes access to food and nutrition. Access to broadband and smart devices can rightly be viewed as a social issue that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color. In a post-COVID-19 world, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that access is universal and that all residents have the means to not only survive but to thrive.

In light of the novel coronavirus and the fundamental need to remain connected, the US government initiated its third phase of the CARES Act, which allocates funds towards connecting broadband deserts, telehealth, learn-from-home (LFH) and work-from-home (WFH). A primary example is the $100 million funding of the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural, ReConnect Program which provides grants for the cost of construction, improvements, or acquisitions of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband services in eligible rural areas. Furthermore, House Democrats have initiated their own version of the stimulus bill, Emergency Connectivity Fund, which falls under the FCC’s E-Rate program, aimed to make telecommunication and information services more affordable for schools and libraries. The bill would allow qualifying schools and libraries to procure affordable Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and other connected devices. Most notably are the Wi-Fi school busses, which allow schools to outfit their buses with Wi-Fi hotspots and park in communities with low or no broadband access. The House Bill also includes $1B for an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, which will allow the FCC to reimburse network carriers for the cost of deploying broadband service to low-income households. Many of these programs and policies are aimed at enabling the private sector to deploy broadband so that homes, schools, farms, factories, health facilities, and other places where people work, live and play can receive broadband Internet but few address the broadband deserts. One possible solution for such areas with low access can be bundling connectivity with other offerings.

Inclusive Technology

Sensible policies can overcome the economical and geographical aspects of the “digital divide”, however, according to Jakob Nielsen, a web-usability consultant, there are two additional aspects that need to be addressed if we want to ensure that everyone is able to transition to our post-COVID-19 and the new networked society. First, we need to address the usability divide; the fact that technology needs to be simplified so that everyone can use it and understand its benefits. Overcoming this divide requires a concerted effort by the solution providers to understand the needs of various users (such as the elderly and those who live with a disability) and providing solutions that work well in their specific context. Special emphasis should be placed on providing technology to address the security and privacy of users. Furthermore, the benefits of technology must be explained to all members of society in a manner that they can understand and apply in their daily lives while explaining how such technology can be used in a secure manner. Technology must be inclusive of all people and education is at the heart of addressing both the usability divide as well as the second divide, the empowerment divide. According to Nielsen, few users truly understand the power of digital technologies and most users limit what they can do by accepting default settings. Through digital literacy, we can empower many more people to take advantage of the benefits of digital technologies so that they, too, can become active and contributing members of our nascent networked-society.

Affordable Access

The key issue with bridging the digital divide is not technical but one of cost, and thus affordability. It is for this reason that the newly available CBRS (Citizen Broadband Radio Service), a band of the radio-frequency spectrum from 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz, provides an opportunity in bridging the digital divide by lowering the cost of access. CBRS does this by providing opportunistic usage rights coupled with the sharing of the spectrum which results in a more economical usage model for the service providers. Further, CBRS enables entrants such as enterprises and managed service providers to enter the market with inexpensive access and service offerings and increase competition. Finally, CBRS empowers businesses, hospitals, schools, cities, and other entities to implement their own private LTE (PLTE) networks by taking advantage of cellular technology once reserved for traditional mobile operators. As an example, in Springfield, Illinois, RF Connect, a systems integrator deployed a free private LTE wireless network at the Memorial Hospital to set up a “pop-up” triage facility in the parking lot of the hospital and provide connectivity for medical staff delivering emergency patient care during the COVID-19 crisis. With the help of their private-sector partners, CommScope/Ruckus, Accu-Tech, and Druid Software, the installation of the PLTE network took a single day and the hospital’s triage tent had full broadband access.

While innovation has fostered the growth of our dynamic digital world, it has inadvertently created a growing gap between the haves and have-nots, a divide recently laid bare by COVID-19. Now that we are at a critical turning point, we can no longer ignore such inequities that prevent us from moving forward into a sustainable and equitable future where basic connectivity to the Internet is a human right. Every resident of our country must have the ability to participate in this new way of living, especially those disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. To achieve this, we recommend sensible policies that lower the cost of access, allow for devices to be made available to those who cannot afford them, and incentivize service providers to improve coverage in broadband deserts. We must encourage digital literacy by creating inclusive and affordable solutions, channel investments, and most importantly, innovate to create solutions that lower the cost of providing access to broadband deserts. CBRS is a positive step in this direction but on its own, it is not enough. We need collaboration from all members of the ecosystem to ensure a positive outcome for our society through purposeful actions, inclusive policies, and visionary leadership. For us at Imagine Wireless, the glaring chasm of the digital divide is among the most obvious inequities exposed by COVID-19, however, we can view this as an opportunity to foster digital equality and assure no one is left behind.


Eli Omar is a Partner at Imagine Wireless, a technology and management consulting firm comprising a select group of industry entrepreneurs with deep expertise in Digital Transformation. Our use-case driven approach along with data-driven tools, help solve global and societal challenges.

Eli (Ilaha) Omar

Written by

Partner @ImagineWireles2 (#tech) ➖ Country Director AFG @EnabledChildren (#disabilityrights) ➖ Board Member @Mahtabeinc (#povertyalleviation)

Eli (Ilaha) Omar

Written by

Partner @ImagineWireles2 (#tech) ➖ Country Director AFG @EnabledChildren (#disabilityrights) ➖ Board Member @Mahtabeinc (#povertyalleviation)

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