By: Brian Meeley

The digital divide remains a critical issue in today’s increasingly connected world. Experts and executives from the digital infrastructure industry took on the challenge at ITW 2024. Andy Lipman, partner at Morgan Lewis, led the panel that included Dean Nelson, founder and chairman of Infrastructure Masons, Craig Huffman, CEO and co-founder of Metro Edge Development Partners, Thomas Tyler, deputy director of CONNECTLA in Louisiana, and Kathryn de Wit of the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The panel discussed whether this sweeping program could deliver progress and what other factors are needed to close the gap, not only of access but of full participation of the underserved in the digital economy.

The State of Digital Infrastructure

ITW 2024Digital infrastructure, encompassing data centers, fiber optic networks, and related technologies, is the backbone of the digital economy. As of 2021, there were 7 million unique data center locations worldwide, with a capacity of 105 gigawatts and consuming 594 terawatt hours of energy, accounting for 2.4% of the global energy draw​​. The industry’s rapid growth is set to continue, with expectations to double in the next five years and potentially triple by 2030​​. This expansion presents both opportunities and challenges, particularly in ensuring equitable access to digital services.

Challenges in Bridging the Digital Divide

ITW 2024One of the primary challenges discussed was the disparity in digital infrastructure across different regions. The most underserved communities often lack the necessary infrastructure to participate in the digital economy. This issue was starkly illustrated during the pandemic, where students in underserved areas often needed to rely on Wi-Fi from nearby fast food restaurants to complete their homework​​.

Huffman highlighted Metro Edge’s strategic approach in Chicago. Metro Edge Development Partners’ flagship data center, IMD1, is located in the Illinois Medical District, one of the largest urban medical campuses in the United States. Huffman pointed out that Metro Edge’s approach is different because they are not following a common industry trend:  data centers are often developed where others exist because such investments in digital infrastructure, from broadband to data centers, tends to attract further investment.

“We need to challenge ourselves to think holistically about these investments,” Huffman stated. “This approach will enable broader participation in what we call the digital economy across our country.”

Another significant challenge discussed is the industry’s workforce gap. The digital infrastructure sector is projected to need 300,000 additional workers by 2025​​. This shortfall highlights the need for targeted training and education programs to equip local populations with the skills necessary to fill these roles.

Workforce Development and Education

ITW 2024Workforce development is crucial to closing the digital divide. The conference highlighted initiatives such as the Digital Infrastructure Futures Foundation, which focuses on providing access and education through scholarships and training programs​​. Additionally, there is a push for integrating broadband curricula into community and technical colleges to ensure a steady pipeline of skilled technicians​​, widely referred to as job skilling programs.

Huffman wants to take it a step further and talk about Digital Trades, in the same ways other skilled workforces invested in training and apprenticeships as plumbers, electricians, roofers and welders. “Because we don’t have the workforce,” Huffman pointed out. “If we invest in the infrastructure, we also have to invest in the opportunities.”

Dean Nelson of iMasons captured the opportunity this way:

“Three hundred thousand people need to be found by 2025. So, when I look at that, how do you get these local communities to participate? You need to get them involved, understand, help them, and allow them to participate because we can actually, like what Craig is doing, hire and boost up communities. We need to replicate that across the entire country.”

The panel also touched on building a culture of digital participation. For example, a device program in Los Angeles has successfully distributed thousands of devices and provided training to community members, helping bridge the digital skills gap​​. These programs not only equip individuals with the necessary skills but also foster a culture of digital literacy and inclusion.

Putting the Pieces Together

Bridging the digital divide is a multifaceted challenge that requires coordinated efforts from policymakers, industry leaders, and community stakeholders. By addressing infrastructure disparities, investing in education and workforce development, and implementing effective policies, we can create a more inclusive digital economy. The session underscored the importance of these efforts and offered a roadmap for digital infrastructure professionals to follow. As we look to the future, the goal remains clear: to ensure that everyone, regardless of location, has the opportunity to participate in and benefit from the digital economy.