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The Imperative to Close the Digital Divide

Marconi Society Coronavirus and Our Connected World

By Robert Tkach

Robert Tkach’s engineering work vastly increased the transmission speed and capacity of optical fiber systems which underlie our global communications networks. Tkach has been recognized with the Marconi Prize, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal and the John Tyndall Award.

Many people are suffering health consequences from the coronavirus, either themselves or within their families. Beyond this, everyone is impacted by disruptions that the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus have had on our work and daily lives. Jobs are at risk and productivity of the country is stalled. We can only hope that measures can be relaxed over time before too much damage is done. 

Between video conference and emails exchanged during these days of “sheltering-in-place,” the one thing I can extract from the experience is that the communications industry has done a reasonably good job of enabling “knowledge workers” to work remotely. There have been times when the video froze or the audio dropped – but that happened before the pandemic, as well. The Internet and its underpinning technologies have performed well for those of us who spend most of our time in meetings and working on documents. Place-based workers, such as laboratory scientists, healthcare providers and service employees are having a harder time.

In remote education, the pandemic has brought existing inequities to light. While the same technologies used for remote work can be applied for schoolwork, the students and teachers aren’t as familiar with them and, while many students have laptops and high-speed internet connections at home, many do not.

Communications technology can only be effective for education if it is ubiquitous and this is why digital inclusion is critical. While we didn’t foresee the pandemic, the need to close the digital divide has become even more obviously important now. The power of communications to make life more resilient needs to be available to everyone.