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Morino Institute From Access to Outcomes: Digital Divide Report and Dialogue

    Premise Eight
Report Supplement
Using the Report

Premise Eight:
Make Major Changes in Public Policy

Although public officials have been quick to grasp the importance of helping low-income communities participate in the digital revolution, public policies have lagged behind public pronouncements. To achieve meaningful national outcomes rather than just a set of small, isolated victories, federal and state governments should do much more to provide frameworks and incentives to help focus philanthropic resources and stimulate private investment in low-income areas. For example:

  • To bring down costs, governments should do more to ensure highly competitive markets for technology.

  • Governments should dramatically increase the scale of their own funding for technology-related initiatives, not just by expanding the handful of existing, isolated programs but by seeking to integrate technology into the broad range of programs that serve low-income Americans.

  • To help demonstrate the value of technology and break down barriers to its adoption, governments should take more aggressive steps to digitize government services and open new avenues of interaction with citizens.

  • Drawing upon the model the federal government successfully used in responding to the Y2K challenge, the president should empower a high-level official to coordinate technology programs across government agencies and ensure greater transfer of technology-enabled solutions.
Case in Point: Two Opportunities for Government to Spur Key Markets

A classic example of an area in which governments could do far more to catalyze private-sector efforts in underresourced communities is telemedicine. Only about a dozen states currently provide reimbursements for telemedical services under Medicaid, the primary health insurance program for low-income families. As a result, hospitals often have little incentive to make expensive up-front investments in tele-radiology, tele-homecare, tele-ophthalmology, and other well-established telemedical applications. By agreeing to cover those services under Medicaid, state governments could spur investments in telemedicine that could yield enormous cost savings for Medicaid and real care improvements for patients.

Another area involves high-speed Internet connections, without which telemedicine, distance learning, and many other advanced applications are far more difficult. In affluent areas, which experience high consumer demand for high-speed Internet connections, telecommunication companies have great incentive to rip up streets and lay fiber optic cable as fast as they can—or build the infrastructure for wireless communications. In poor urban and rural communities, the consumer demand is not as obvious; therefore, far less investment in communications infrastructure takes place.

The federal government could use several approaches to ensure that poor communities are not bypassed. For example, Congress could create tax incentives for wireless and broadband development for low-income communities. Alternatively, the Federal Communications Commission could, under the authority granted to it in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ease the regulatory burden on telecommunications providers who agree to deploy broadband in low-income communities.

Whatever "carrots" governments offer, the incentives should be as meaningful as the ones used to ensure the electrification of rural America. Broadband and wireless communications soon will become just as important for economic development as electricity was in the early 20th century.

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