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How to close the global digital divide and level the playing field
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In the last 20 years, the internet has become almost as essential as water or air. Every day, many of us wake up and check it for the news, sports, work, and social media. We log on from our phones, our computers, even our watches. It's a luxury so often taken for granted. With the COVID-19 pandemic, as many now work from home and children are going to school online, home access is a more critical service than ever before.

On the flip side, some 3.6 billion people live without affordable access to the internet. This digital divide — which has only widened over the past 20 years — has worsened wealth inequality within countries, divided developed and developing economies and intensified the global gender gap. It has allowed new billionaires to rise, and contributed to keeping billions of others in poverty.

In the US, lack of internet access at home prevents nearly one in five teens from finishing their homework. One third of households with school-age children and income below $30,000 don't have internet in their homes, with Black and Hispanic households particularly affected.

The United Nations is working to highlight the costs of the digital divide and to rapidly close it. In September 2019, for example, the UN's International Telecommunication Union and UNICEF launched Giga, an initiative aimed at connecting every school and every child to the internet by 2030.

Closing digital inequity gaps also remains a top priority for the UN Secretary-General. His office recently released a new Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The UN Foundation has been supporting both this work, and the High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, which made a series of recommendations to ensure all people are connected, respected, and protected in the digital age. Civil society, technologists and communications companies, such as Verizon, played a critical role in informing those consultations. In addition, the UN Foundation houses the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), which advances digital inclusion through streamlining technology, unlocking markets and accelerating digitally enabled services as it works to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


Pexels / Andrea Piacquadio

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic only further exposed the global digital divide as schools and universities all over the world shut their doors and sent their 1.5 billion students (roughly 9 out of 10 students worldwide) home. The sudden nature of the pandemic provided educators little time to plan for sustained distance learning.

According to UNESCO, about half of all students — roughly 826 million children — kept out of classrooms lack access to a household computer and 43% do not have the internet at home. This means that low-income or disadvantaged students are falling even further behind their wealthier peers. While the gaps are particularly acute in low-income regions, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, no country is spared from this issue — including the United States.

"COVID-19 has exposed that many of the systems designed to support the most vulnerable, are broken, exacerbating the divides that already existed in education, economic development and workforce mobility, among other areas," said Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Verizon. "Large global enterprises have a responsibility to help solve these issues and build opportunities for individuals to thrive in a digital economy."

To address emerging education inequalities in remote learning, communications companies are stepping up. For example Verizon has scaled up its long-standing Verizon Innovative Learning program, unlocking online tools and unveiling new resources from expanded data plans, hotspots and devices for Title 1 middle schools and high schools to teacher trainings and parent resources for STEM. This work to address digital inclusion is part of Citizen Verizon, the company's responsible business plan for economic, environmental and social advancement that will empower the technology leader to deliver on its mission to move the world forward.

"The digital divide in our country is very real, and we need to make sure every student has the device and internet access they need to be connected with their school community," said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner.

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By partnering with school districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, and state bodies, such as the Georgia Department of Education, the Texas Education Agency, and the Oregon Department of Education among others, Verizon is making discounted connectivity to 4G LTE internet plans available to more than 38 million students across 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Programs such as Education Cannot Wait, which Verizon recently supported with a $1 million contribution, are making learning more accessible and connected for children globally, especially those in crisis by catalyzing funding and investment in quality education during humanitarian and other crises.

"During this critical moment, technology, innovation and connectivity are more important than ever and we are doubling down on our commitment to transform education by providing technology resources and the networks that will give underprivileged students the vital tools they need and the education they deserve wherever they are," Kirk said.

Achieving "a future with one world, one net, one vision," as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, and closing the digital divide will require companies, educators and international bodies like the UN working closely together.

That is how we can level the playing field for students across the globe.

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