Twenty years ago, many public officials, educators, and economic and workforce-development visionaries anticipated that because of the growth of personal computing and the development of the Internet, action was needed to avoid another large societal divide based on race, class and education. There was plenty of reason for concern: In 2000, only 23.5 percent of African Americans and 23.6 percent of Hispanics had access to computers in their homes, while only 18.9 percent of blacks and 16.1 percent of Hispanics had a home Internet connection of any kind.

I was involved in one of the early efforts to help bridge this digital divide. The Atlanta Mayor's Office of Community Technology created a network of 20 Community Cyber Centers that offered access to computers, high-speed broadband and technology training, funded under the city's cable franchise agreement. The largest such local-government program at the time, it served 25,000 residents.

Programs like that have come and gone around the country, and there has been progress on other fronts. Yet there still exists a stubborn digital divide that disproportionately impacts Americans from underserved communities. One in three African Americans and Hispanics — 14 million and 17 million, respectively — still don't have access to computer technology in their homes. Similar dismal numbers, 35 percent of black households and 29 percent of Hispanic households, do not have broadband.

And of course there remains another kind of digital divide, between urban and predominately white rural areas. According to the Federal Communications Commission, as of the end of 2017, more than 26 percent of rural residents lacked access to fixed broadband, such as cable or fiber-optic service, at the FCC's benchmark of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads. The Fiber Broadband Association pegs the number of Americans without access to that level of service at 19 million, the vast majority of them rural residents. And while broadband is nearly ubiquitous in urban and suburban neighborhoods, many residents cannot afford monthly fees that can range from $50 to over $100.

Can America remain competitive when tens of millions of its residents are without access to home computers and affordable, high-speed broadband connectivity, in a nation where many employers will only accept online applications, where truck drivers and other blue-collar workers are expected by their employers to access work assignments digitally, and where so many students of higher learning need to do their coursework online?

As much as cost and access to technology are barriers, the lack of focus on digital literacy is even more of a problem. What good is access if one cannot use the Internet for self-empowering purposes like conducting a search to find a sustainable-wage job within a 25-mile radius of one's home or within walking distance or public transportation? If a student in school cannot access course content or discern credible from non-credible Internet sources to complete assignments, how has that student benefited from the technology? If local and state governments cannot offer a reliable network that allows citizens to participate in public meetings from the convenience of their homes or offices, then the technology has not fulfilled the promise of ushering in an age of digital democracy.

We must finish the job of bringing affordable broadband to everyone in America. Thirty-one million black and brown Americans who cannot afford digital technology is too much human capital to waste. And we must finish the job of making broadband available across rural America, where commercial broadband providers are reluctant to go and where state and local governments and telecom cooperatives have not always acted aggressively, or responsibly, to meet the connectivity needs of all citizens.

We need to approach the build-out of a national broadband network like we did the interstate highway system in the 1950s. We take these highways coast to coast, and for the most part they are free and well maintained. We must entertain the notion that having broadband is akin to a civil and human right, just like having access to water, electricity and sewers. Toward this end, here are some steps that local governments could take:

  • Partner with telecom cooperatives to build out broadband networks in rural communities if commercial providers won't provide service.
  • Use government facilities like libraries and community, cultural and recreation centers to offer free digital literacy courses.
  • Use a portion of cable and telecommunication franchise fees to provide deeply discounted broadband services to seniors and low-income residents.
  • Work closely in partnership with local school boards so students from underserved communities have year-around access to laptops and other smart devices.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of building "the beloved community," one devoid of injustice and whose benefits are shared by all. We need for once and all to build a beloved broadband digital community and make sure that all are connected to it.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.