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Brookings Digital Citizenship Digital Equity Digital Inequality Economic Development Infrastructure Prosperity Social Outcomes

Digital Prosperity

Can broadband can deliver health and equity to all communities?

Every industry relies on computing, cloud storage, or other digital equipment to sell goods and services. Employers increasingly demand more advanced digital skills from the labor force. Meanwhile, people’s individual lives often orbit around the internet, whether at home, at work, or on the move.

Brookings – Digital prosperity: How broadband can deliver health and equity to all communities

Broadband is so influential on our society that we can now call ‘dependable high-speed internet’ as an essential infrastructure service.

Broadband’s applications are so far-reaching that these physical networks directly and indirectly affect a wide range of conditions that impact health and life outcomes, known as social determinants of health (SDOH) or conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes (CDC-Center for Disease Control and Prevention).

If broadband is essential infrastructure, then regulation and public policy should support every American community having equitable access to broadband and the skills necessary to use it.

Why Broadband Matters

For most Americans, broadband is commonplace in professional, personal, and social interactions. Yet even with this ubiquity, the extent of broadband’s health and equity benefits aren’t fully understood. In part, this is because broadband’s physical networks do not directly impact health and equity outcomes in the way other infrastructure systems do. Instead, broadband serves as a platform on which a range of different applications operate and impact individuals. Just having an internet connection does not boost someone’s health outcomes—but using the internet to access remote health care providers, services, and information can serve as a conduit to improved physical and mental health.

Because broadband’s applications are so wide ranging, it can deliver services that touch every social determinant of health. From economic stability, to education, to social supports, to civic agency, broadband and the digital services it enables are today intrinsically tied to collective health and equity outcomes.

Economic Outcomes

In terms of economic outcomes, broadband delivers benefits to both individuals and communities. Broadband makes:

  • Job seekerseasier to search for jobs, apply for them, and to keep looking for longer.
    • In turn, businesses reap benefits from e-recruiting, which makes it less expensive to access a larger pool of candidates.
  • Digitally fluent workforce – brings productivity gains to firms, who can then reward employees with higher wages.
  • Macro economic lens – based on higher levels of broadband adoption lead to economic growth, higher incomes, and lower unemployment.

Social Outcomes

Broadband also plays an important role in improving social outcomes:

  • Broadband democratizes access – to education, offering a wide supply of free and open education platforms, courses, and resources.
  • Help people foster social supports – stay in contact with a broader social network. For traditionally marginalized groups who are prone to social isolation, access to the internet allows them to connect to others anonymously.
  • Telehealth – the use of telecommunications to deliver health services and education—can directly improve health outcomes, especially for those who otherwise lack access to medical providers.

Broadband is the Country’s Most Inequitable Infrastructure

The 2020 state of American broadband access, adoption, and use is one of disparate outcomes. According to the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS),

  • 85% of households have subscriptions to some form of “broadband” internet service.
    • ~10% have cellular-only access to the internet
  • 99.6% of households have complete plumbing.
  • 100% of households with access to electricity.

Additionally, the less population-dense an area is; the greater the digital divide due to the costs of connecting and providing service.

How do we become more digitally-prosperous?

Broadband’s ability to reach and positively impact households depends on three critical inputs:

  1. Physical availability
  2. Affordability of services and equipment
  3. Digital skill levels

Western North Carolina Broadband Initiative

The WNC Broadband Project is here to help:

  • Build & grow coalitions
    • School systems
    • Municipalities of Cities and Counties
    • Neighborhoods
    • Religious Institutions
  • Target opportunities
    • Online banking
    • Telehealth education
    • Communities
  • Make resources bi-lingual
  • Gather and effectively present data
    • Data visualization
    • Benchmarks and milestones

If you our your group and help bind opportunities across social, economic, and physical health dimensions, please contact a member of the WNC Broadband Project Team.

Building more equitable broadband infrastructure will improve our outlook on the Western North Carolina social determinants of health.

Adie Tomer, Lara Fishbane, Angela Siefer, and Bill Callahan. 2020. “Digital Prosperity: How Broadband Can Deliver Health and Equity to All Communities.” Brookings. Brookings. February 26, 2020.