The Big Question: Can the U.S. Close Its Digital Divide?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been condensed and edited.

Romesh Ratnesar: According to the federal government, an estimated 21.3 million Americans, or 6.5% of the population, lack reliable access to broadband Internet. President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for investing $100 billion to expand high-speed Internet connectivity. However, some experts contend that the administration is underestimating the need for broadband and that significantly more funding is required to reach underserved areas. 

You’re senior vice president and chief corporate social responsibility officer at Verizon, which recently announced a $3 billion initiative to address the country’s digital divide. Based on your experience working on this issue, what do you see as the potential impact of the administration’s proposed investments in digital infrastructure? 

Rose Stuckey Kirk, chief corporate social responsibility officer, Verizon Communications Inc.: I think the issue fundamentally is, do we understand what the infrastructure looks like across the country? What is the level of broadband that people are getting? And how are we defining broadband and what the need really is? At Verizon, we’re thinking across the dimensions of the “four A’s”: access, affordability, application, and advocacy. All four of those components really make up the digital divide. So yes, you have to have the build-out and the connectivity. But then you’ve got to make sure it’s affordable. And one of the biggest things that you have to do is make sure people also understand the application. People need to know, What do I do with this [broadband connection] beyond basic things? How do I apply it for economic prosperity? How do I ensure that I’m not going to be left behind? The work that we do solves for all of those “four A’s.” 

RR: So infrastructure is just the starting point?

RK: It’s the foundation — I mean, you’ve got to have it, because everything builds on top of that. But it really is just the building block for addressing the challenge of digital inclusion. And it’s not just the digital divide; it’s really about getting people into the digital economy. Think about all those small businesses that probably had some level of connectivity when the pandemic hit. What many didn’t have was an understanding of application: knowing the right websites, knowing how to use digitalization to reach out and continue their businesses. We lost so much in our society and our economy because that application layer was missing. That is as critical as the infrastructure.

RR: Much of what you’re talking about has to do with upgrading soft skills and expanding digital literacy, which we’ve traditionally left to the education system. How has the role of private companies evolved in addressing these challenges?

RS: I think it’s interesting when we take our society and we separate it into boxes. I don’t think any flourishing and thriving society is going to be successful if you do that. As a company we’ve always understood we have an obligation to society. We can’t exist without a strong economy, without an educated sector of individuals, without communities that thrive. So we have an obligation to ensure we’re helping to create that kind of environment. When we began the Verizon Innovative Learning program 10 years ago, our own research showed us that there were children in the same zip code, living maybe two or three miles apart, with some attending one school that was prospering and had everything they needed — technology, robotics courses, etc — and then down the street, there was a school in a lower-income environment that had nothing. And kids were changing their dreams about what they could be, because they recognized that society was changing and they didn’t have the tools. As a company that provides connectivity, we felt that our obligation, was to go into those schools, adopt those schools, provide them with connectivity, devices and a curriculum, and help students engage with technology. And we continue to do that work. We’re putting 5G in those schools and developing some of the first 5G education apps in the country to deliver on that. I think it’s a great example of understanding our role in society. You can’t just leave that up to government. 

RR: Since we’re talking about schools, let’s go back to the beginning of the pandemic. What kind of conversations took place inside Verizon about how to meet the incredible surge in demand created by basically every school in the country suddenly having to teach remotely?

RK: We did several things. We ensured all of our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools had the level of data connectivity that they needed to go to an all-virtual environment. We increased data plans across the whole spectrum of schools. We went back to schools that had graduated out of the program and brought them back in so that we could ensure they had all the connectivity that they needed, and that their devices were primed and ready. And we created a distance-learning program where school districts could buy connectivity, devices, etc., at a discounted rate and then do a pass-through to their students. 

We always knew that education is unequal and uneven; and we knew that it was unequal and uneven for Black and brown people. Students of color had a 12 to 16-month learning loss coming out of the pandemic. White students had a five to nine-month learning loss. So you have a significant number of students in our country that are trying to figure out how to catch up. On top of that, you have an education system that is forever changed. Some model of hybrid will probably always exist. So how do you help these students move forward? How do you help teachers understand how to catch them up? How do you help school districts think about completely different models? Our K-12 learning platform is a tool we’re launching this fall that I think students will be even more excited about — it uses extended reality, virtual reality, 3-D design, to really help them engage with science and math and other complicated subjects. That’s going to be critical, because you are going to see those continued losses in subjects like math and science.

RR: Can you talk about some of the work Verizon is doing to support small businesses, particularly those in underserved or distressed communities across the country? Why do you see this as a critical part of your corporate mission?

RK: Even before the pandemic we’d started doing work to address the problems facing small businesses, particularly those run by women and people of color — their not having access to capital or the tools that they needed to be successful, not knowing how to write a really good business plan, how to digitize their businesses, how to manage employees, how to get access to procurement pathways so that they could align with big companies like Verizon. They didn’t know how to do that. Through our small business accelerator program, we’ve been working to provide that insight with partners like Next Street and the Local Initiative Support Corporation. It’s all designed to recognize the nuances of the digital divide, the ways that segments of the population are not getting what they need for digital inclusion, and address it. 

RR: You grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark. How has your personal background influenced your career choices and the way you think about issues related to inclusion and opportunity?

RK: I grew up in a small town, which I would call a town of black people and white people. My worldview was pretty small. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t really travel to a lot of places. They were busy putting food on the table and reminding us every day that education was the greatest equalizer, and that no one could take your education from you. My mother was very busy making sure that I could read every book that she could put her hands on. She would go to yard sales and garage sales to find me books to read. What that gave me was an understanding of what potential could be. I couldn’t see it and I couldn’t frame it out, but I knew that potential was there. And I also knew that I was equally smart, if not smarter, than the people around me who had more financial resources. I competed very well with them in the academic environment. That allowed me to be comfortable taking risks and to build my career over time. I felt that anything is possible if you’re willing to work hard, and if you’re willing to read and learn. And so that foundation and that small town gave me all of that. 

RR: What more can companies do to expand opportunities for Black women and increase their numbers in senior leadership and executive positions?

RK: I always tell people that success in corporate America is in the nuances. Companies need to do more to be really clear about what those nuances are. Some people get the coaching and the whispers in the ears. You know, “Let me make sure you’re totally prepped for this meeting that you’re about to walk into.” “Let me tell you why that meeting didn’t go well.” You know, they get the keys to the kingdom, the unlock. And too often we leave women and people of color on the sidelines of that. [Yet] that’s where your success is going to be: it’s the one-on-one investment, which is different from mentorship. It’s a willingness to tell people the truth about what they need to do and how they need to do it and how they’re showing up. You need more truth-telling. That is going to help lift people into these opportunities. We also need to be very clear about allowing people to move about the business in different roles, and in some cases to not be successful in the traditional way. Women, and particularly Black women, are less often put into positions where it might be a risk to do it. And if they do and they fail, then we sideline them. But white males can fail spectacularly and we keep talking about what a great learning experience that was for them, and give them one more. And I think we’ve got to sort of equal that out. 

RR: There’s been a lot of conversation in recent months about large corporations and CEOs taking stands on hot-button social and political issues. What’s driving this trend and what impact is it likely to have?  

RK: What we’ve come to realize is that there is a whole, complete person that shows up at work. During the George Floyd protests, I spoke to a colleague at Verizon who was really trying to understand and ask for counsel about it. What should we do? How should we respond? Is this a work issue, etc.? And I said to them, “You know, every time my adult son gets in his car, and drives from Houston to Dallas, I spend my whole day checking my phone to make sure he made it and that he’s safe.” And I’m doing that while solving complex problems at Verizon, while I’m engaging, presenting media interviews, whatever it is — but in the back of my mind, my adult African-American son and his safety, if he is moving about in spaces where I think that he might have the potential to be pulled over, is always with me. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we as a company navigate those issues? And what is our obligation to understand that the people that we are counting on and believe in, have this whole other component to their lives, that sits in their stomachs in their hearts in their heads every day when they’re at work? When we’re dependent upon this citizenry to be a part of this company, we can’t afford not to acknowledge some of these issues. You can’t be half-purposeful. Either you are you aren’t. 

I think companies are coming to understand that turning a blind eye isn’t the answer. Intellectually understanding the issues and articulating a point of view is really important. You’ll never make 100% of people happy. You will always have people who will disagree. So whether you make a statement or not, you understand that there is going to be a level of response. I think companies have to be thoughtful and articulate in doing it, but I also think they have to pull through that statement into how they show up internally, and who they are and what they do and what their values are. Those things, I think, work hand in glove. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”

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