Access to broadband for all Americans is urgent. Read more about how our Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) has developed a repeatable model to address the digital divide in communities hosting HBCUs starting with Orangeburg, South Carolina. Learn More.

Digital Access Infrastructure Plan

It’s Time to Answer Dr. King’s Urgent Call: We Must Bridge the Digital Divide to Achieve Economic Equality

Nearly 100 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into the world on the eve of a great global economic depression, and at a time of deep inequity in the United States. Many people remember him as a scion of social justice, but his larger vision for our shared greatness rested on economic justice – which remains elusive today. One of the largest enduring examples of systemic economic injustice is the digital divide, and that’s what I’m asking leaders in Davos this week to take action on, with great urgency.

A Pew Research study found that 34% of lower-income home broadband users have had trouble paying for their service amid COVID-19, and 63% of Black adults say that not having high-speed internet puts them at a major disadvantage in terms of connecting with doctors and other medical professionals, with similar existing concerns when it comes to getting schoolwork done and looking for jobs.

The benefits of bridging this divide are similarly stark. Deloitte found that even a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration would have created more than 800,000 new jobs from 2016-2019. McKinsey found that closing the broadband gap was one among a group of solutions that could add more than $300 billion in economic activity among Black consumers.

The pandemic made the potential benefits of equitable digital access even clearer. People who have access to high-speed connectivity are more able to work flexibly, which is good for families. Students who have access to broadband are more connected to their learning. Job seekers have better access to opportunities. Small businesses are able to survive, and thrive, via broadband. Senior citizens are more connected with loved ones. It can expand telemedicine to underserved communities residing in healthcare deserts.

The approximately 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in America embody the challenges that disconnected Black communities in America face every day. HCBUs play a vital role in our community, graduating more than 50% of Black engineers, 50% of Black attorneys, and 85% of Black doctors, but they are deeply impacted by the digital divide: 82% of them exist in broadband deserts. In the future that Dr. King envisioned, HBCUs would serve as hubs of innovation in Black communities, no different than MIT or Stanford in Cambridge or Silicon Valley.

Here’s the good news: the federal infrastructure bill passed into law last year, along with the pandemic-era American Rescue plan, together allocate $90 billion for broadband infrastructure. This is the single largest investment in broadband in our lifetimes, and we must ensure it reduces—and does not reinforce—the digital divide.

Here is how the spending process has been outlined: the federal government will make investments through states; states are then required to set strategic priorities and prepare data-driven implementation plans in order to access the funding. Part of this includes engaging with local stakeholders to ensure their needs are taken into account. At the same time, communities can compete for sub-grants, which entails real opportunity to create local impact.

In order to fulfill Dr. King’s vision, Black communities must be equitably included in state-level plans. This is an urgent issue: the above process is likely to conclude in the coming months.

This is achievable. Half of all African Americans live in just six communities: Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, New Orleans, Houston, and Memphis. Additionally, HBCUs serve as anchors in many of the areas where broadband deserts exist, and therefore can be a deeply impactful part of the solution. They can help to expand access, improve digital skills, and upgrade digital services, which provides a gateway to inclusive economic empowerment.

No one person or organization alone can do this; partnerships are essential. In 2021, building on my gift at Morehouse, I founded the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) to enable anyone to study STEM at any HBCU and graduate without a crushing debt burden. Over time, SFI has expanded its work to also strengthen HBCUs themselves, and through collaboration with Cisco, AVC Technologies, Connect Humanity, and McKinsey, we bridged the digital divide in one community.

Specifically, SFI partnered with Connect Humanity, Claflin University, South Carolina State University, and the Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities and recently completed Phase 1 of a comprehensive effort to provide more affordable, high-speed digital access to all 26,000 residents in the area. Claflin had long suffered from poor, unreliable internet connectivity, despite being shown on federal broadband maps as having sufficiently fast and reliable connection. Working with the Claflin community, we collaboratively developed a local Digital Access Infrastructure Plan, and CISCO and SFI are now supporting and coordinating the installation of hardware and software to upgrade Orangeburg,Claflin and South Carolina State’s fiber optic broadband service.

It’s vital we work quickly to develop broadband plans for other Black communities. This work takes real partnership, time, and sustained effort, but our research indicates a 10x economic return for every dollar invested in these HBCU-anchored communities. With the success of our work in Orangeburg, we’re now raising an additional $30 million to prepare similar plans for dozens more communities.

As I meet with leaders in Davos this week, I’m urging them to join us, and to help advance Dr. King’s legacy. Business leaders and philanthropists can help in several ways:

● Support the ground game by contributing towards the $30 million required to prepare additional broadband plans.

● Utilize their government affairs teams to engage at the state level and ensure Black communities and these broadband plans are included in state-level plans presented to the federal government.

● Provide direct support to HBCUs and their communities with financial and/or in-kind contributions of devices, hotspots, and equipment to schools and communities for broadband infrastructure.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close this divide and finally achieve economic equality in America. As King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail, injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action. We need to seize this moment, and act quickly.