CONTRIBUTOR THOUGHTS: How can we connect communities & bridge the digital divide?

Digital has become the new normal: industries ranging from health and education to finance and agriculture rely so heavily on internet connectivity that broadband has become a necessity. Despite high demand, 23% of US households still lack access to broadband internet service. Compared to 100% access to electricity, this gap is astounding — thus there is both demand for and efforts towards developing universal access to broadband. 

The broadband gap affects communities from the bottom up. 39% percent of Americans in rural areas – 23 million people – still do not have access to high-speed internet. 

Without that access, rural areas miss out on both small and large scale infrastructure and market investment, limiting equal access to educational and professional opportunities. Researchers have found that higher levels of broadband adoption lead to economic growth, higher incomes and lower unemployment. 


Rural America’s Persistent and Enduring Digital Divide =

Rural communities are experiencing the digital divide at an increasing rate as technology becomes more integrated and essential to our working world. Internet speeds in rural areas lag far behind, often barely scraping the minimum federal standard. Low digital literacy rates and limited access to education and information further disadvantage rural communities by closing them off to opportunities made available by internet access.

An estimated 15 million elementary and secondary students across the country lack adequate internet access, speed or simply do not have a device at home. During the pandemic, rural educators were expected to maintain virtual instruction despite low broadband access. 

Broadband adoption in rural communities correlates directly with increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation, higher home values and lower unemployment rates. 


A Future of Equitable Rural Broadband Access in Georgia

What starts with small scale community impact ultimately fosters larger-scale economic growth, necessitating solutions tailored to communities’ current technology and infrastructure. The Georgia-based Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (the Partnership) works to advance initiatives that promote innovation, opportunity and shared economic success by unifying both public and private efforts. 

The Partnership both funds research supporting data literacy and collaborates with local efforts to expand broadband efforts across Georgia, highlighting what can be accomplished when the public and private sectors join forces to build economic prosperity that works for everyone.

The City of Woodbury in Georgia became the first Partnership project city to be declared “Broadband Ready” by the Department of Community Affairs. As of 2020, Woodbury broadband served more than 50 households and businesses with wireless internet access. The transformed city now serves as a model to assist other communities in reaching their full internet potential. 

Lack of access to information sets entire generations of individuals back solely due to geographical location. Macon-Bibb county is working to increase access to information through a smart kiosk system to integrate existing mobile applications and smart solutions. This project expands upon the current infrastructure to expand access to institutions of higher learning for the entire community.

Given greater distances to emergency services in rural communities, connectivity is critical — its lack can be fatal. The City of Valdosta utilized Georgia Smart, an award-winning Partnership program, to couple existing infrastructure with intelligent transportation systems, significantly reducing safety response times. 

Mobile clinics, such as Kids’-Doc-on-Wheels, are another effort to ensure medical access for children who might otherwise miss critical health check-ins or miss school to receive them and also benefits from higher connectivity in rural areas. Kids’-Doc-on-Wheels serves as a primary care provider for school-age children as well as complementing the work of community pediatricians, improving access to medical, dental and behavioral health services. 


Rural Broadband Access: Advancing Equity and Economic Progress

The effects of lack of access to broadband on a national scale remain profound. One study estimated expanding rural broadband across the U.S. by 20 percent would yield $43.8 billion in economic benefit over 15 years. Studies from Purdue University found that every dollar towards broadband expansion resulted in $3-4 in economic benefits. The economic and social impact more than pays for investments. 

Rural broadband access remains both an issue of fundamental equity and improved outcomes. From upgrading technology and finding alternatives that work for the communities, investing in improved rural broadband access can start small, but will ultimately create a profound return on investment and impact on national and global markets. 


About the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation

Launched in 2020, the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation is a public-private organization that was created to lead coordinated, statewide efforts to position Georgia as the leader for innovation, opportunity and shared economic success. The Partnership’s focus pillars of community research, workforce development, student engagement and economic opportunity are a powerful combination that provides technical and financial support to open innovation through collaboration. Since 2020, the Partnership’s work has deployed over $3M in capital and resources throughout the State and catalyzed 30+projects with local governments, universities, start-ups and nonprofits. The projects have created new businesses, increased access to financial and social capital, and deployed more than 170 technologies.

More information is available at

About The Author: Debra Lam is the Founding Executive Director at the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation