2020 rapidly accelerated the digital transformation of the American economy as the spread of COVID-19 required communities to make significant changes to in-person activities. These changes laid bare the necessity of reliable internet access for basic economic and social activities. Now more than ever, broadband is an essential service, facilitating financial transactions, education, commerce, health care, and more.
Last year, U.S. retail e-commerce sales rose 33.6% and the value of transactions conducted over electronic payments rose 11% to $61.9 trillion. This expansion of digital payments has material implications for businesses, as online access becomes the new storefront for many across the country.
These online trends coincide with shifting consumer preferences, as 75% of customers prefer to use some form of card payment for in-store transactions, compared to only 17% who prefer to pay with cash. Having access to fast and reliable broadband is particularly important for small businesses responding to changing consumer preferences and using internet-enabled services to reach their customers and compete in the digital economy. These digital trends aren’t going anywhere, instead they will likely continue to expand over the coming years. Policymakers need to start effectively preparing for this new reality and make the investments necessary to ensure businesses have access to the digital economy.
Congress should make a significant investment to ensure Americans across the country, especially those in traditionally underserved communities, have access to fast and reliable broadband services. Using the uniquely American approach of pairing private sector investment with government funding, Congress can help foster the innovation and market competition necessary to develop broadband infrastructure. Bringing the estimated tens of millions of individuals and small-business owners who currently lack adequate broadband services online doesn’t just make sense from an equity standpoint, it’s sound economic policy. Research shows that these investments can help raise GDP, increase household income, expand economic opportunities, improve access to digital financial services, and spur economic activity across various industries and parts of the country.
The task at hand is large, but the cost of inaction is immense. Congress should use President Biden’s $100 billion proposal to invest in broadband as a strong place to begin the negotiations for this legislation. To ensure the development of an equitable, forward-looking system designed to handle increasing digital traffic in the years ahead, these investments should be paired with updating the definition of high-speed broadband to at least 100 megabits per second, prioritizing the build-out of fiber optic cable, and working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to improve coverage mapping to accurately record households without proper access to broadband.
Broadband investment should also be prioritized to target historically underserved rural and urban communities and those where the digital divide between white communities and communities of color is deepest. Currently, the average majority-white tract has an average broadband adoption rate of 83.7% while the average majority-Black tract has a rate of 67.4%. Further, the broadband adoption rate for tracts with a poverty rate lower than 20% is 81.8% compared to a 64.9% adoption rate for tracts with a poverty rate above 20%. These discrepancies are unacceptable and are harming our economy. For example, 12% of all U.S. households are excluded from digital payments due to a lack of internet connectivity, hindering their ability to engage in the digital economy. We must quickly and effectively close these broadband gaps to ensure all Americans are given the keys to success for the 21st century economy.
Overcoming the current digital divide and meeting the challenges of tomorrow will require collaboration across the public and private sectors to improve access and affordability.
It’s time to modernize the nation’s internet infrastructure to improve financial access and economic opportunity for the tens of millions of Americans currently lacking broadband services. The payments industry looks forward to working with Congress to make that a reality.