Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Ciena, a networking systems, services and software company.

This year has spotlighted the value of the infrastructure that enables large numbers of people to work, communicate, educate, shop and socialize wherever we are. Going remote around the globe also acted as a catalyst for change, helping us to better pinpoint where certain gaps in access might be.

The digital divide has been exposed like never before. Many children and young adults lack broadband connectivity, technology and computing devices. Others may have some limited access to connectivity and smart devices but found them inadequate to fill the gap with what was previously a live, in-person experience. While certainly a frustrating reality before, it’s now greatly impacting the roughly 1.5 billion students globally who are navigating school closures and relying on their internet connection for virtual learning.

We’re continuing to see massive advancements in technology across the globe, yet something as simple as a reliable internet connection seems to have left millions in the dark. As such, tech leaders have the opportunity to step up and help deliver connectivity by creating stronger digital inclusion initiatives in 2021.

When the industry comes together, we can make significant strides in creating more opportunities for the population that is most at risk of falling behind the digital curve. When we invest in the next generation, we’re investing in the future of our global economy. Access to the internet — and the necessary tools to use it — are the foundation for opportunity, inclusion and innovation.

Transforming Title I Schools

There are thousands of Title I schools across the U.S., and according to the Brookings Institution, “funding per student is quite low, averaging about $500 to $600 a year.” Not to mention, as of December 2020, 128 million children in developing countries are out of school due to the pandemic. There is also little evidence that funds are adequately resourced to optimize the learning and development of students. While funds are allocated to after-school activities and tech purchases, students still need many more resources — including access to equipment, especially now with the rise in virtual learning.

Tech companies can help support these schools by providing access to laptops and tablets, as well as free hotspot connections for their homes. This should ensure that no child is left behind when it comes to learning in our digital world, and they can actively connect and engage with their classmates and teachers remotely.

Building Community Learning Opportunities

A report conducted by Burning Glass Technologies found that 75% of postings, even in low-skill jobs, require digital literacy. Sadly, individuals who grow up in low-income households often lack basic computer and internet skills. Even when they may have the opportunity to learn from free computer classes offered at the local library, for example, they rarely have a chance to put their learnings into practice due to a lack of access to the right equipment at home.

With the pandemic bringing the digital divide into clear focus, some tech companies have partnered with local communities to help develop and expand digital learning programs. These new resources allow students to not only better adapt within their remote learning circumstances but can also help lay the foundation for future career opportunities. As volunteerism levels have been down due to the pandemic, this is also a great way for tech companies to engage their employees to dedicate time and efforts in participating in digital inclusion programs as well.

Investing In The Underlying Infrastructure

When there is the infrastructure for digital inclusion, communities can benefit from economic prosperity and be ready for the next wave of technology. There are a number of government-driven initiatives focused on helping to build out the underlying infrastructure in rural communities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Rural Opportunity Fund aims to provide $20.4 billion to connect millions of rural homes and small businesses to high-speed broadband networks. In the United Kingdom, the Good Things Foundation is driving a program aimed at investing £130 million over the next four years to bring internet connection to 4.5 million residents.

To ensure that rural communities are well equipped to deal with our digital reality, service providers should prioritize the use of a fiber infrastructure — underpinned by intelligent software — that can adapt and meet the demands placed on it by businesses and the public. Fortunately, this kind of technology is more affordable and accessible than ever before.

Creating Partnerships With A Common Goal

A great way for tech companies to build better digital inclusion is by teaming up with others in the industry that focus on innovative learning and development. By creating long-term partnerships and collaborations, tech companies can benefit from developing new community footprints and a more localized and personal approach with populations who need access to the internet the most. With partnerships that already have a hand in the local communities, the chances of success and widespread impact are greatly heightened.

Tech companies will also have the opportunity to create partnerships that build innovation hubs and STEM programs to further educate and enlighten future generations. For example, the Verizon Innovative Learning program aims to address barriers to digital inclusion by expanding educational initiatives and inspiring students with tech innovations. To date, “78% of teachers said that Verizon Innovative Learning schools enhanced student engagement,” and “54% of students believe having a device improved their confidence in the things they can do.” We partnered with the Spark Foundation to create the Ciena Jump for Students Fund, which provides 150GB of data each month to eligible decile 1 high school students in New Zealand for the 2021 school year.

When creating partnerships, it’s quintessential that all parties involved have a specific goal in mind and clear objectives on how to reach it. By setting benchmarks for success and steadily measuring ongoing efforts against them, we can reduce the connectivity divide and build tech empowerment.

When we build new bridges around digital inclusion, we create boundless opportunities for students and communities. Tech companies must do their part in building a digitally inclusive world that prioritizes bringing everyone along for the digital journey.


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