Broadband Insecurity: Advancing Digital Equity and Inclusion

with Nicol Turner-Lee of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution

Telehealth offers a safe and convenient option for patients and health care providers to connect, but some communities face barriers to entry.

Nicol Turner-Lee, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation and Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, shares how the COVID-19 pandemic greater emphasized the digital divide.

Posted on:

January 29, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Digital health innovations have provided people with ongoing access to vital health services, while minimizing potential exposure to COVID-19. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. While telehealth offers a safe and convenient option for healthcare for a lot of people, it presents barriers for other people and joining me to talk about this is Nicol Turner-Lee. She is the director of the Center for Technology Innovation and a senior fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Nicol, thank you for being here.

Turner-Lee: Oh, thanks for having me.

Anderson: So I want to start with this idea that there's sort of a trifecta of concerns, when it comes to access to telehealth for Black and brown communities, and older communities as well. All of it's been laid bare because of the pandemic. What are some of the big concerns?

Turner-Lee: Yeah, I mean, I think that is such a great question, and I'll tell you why. We found out, during these last few months of the pandemic, that being connected mattered in 2020 and it's going to matter going into 2021. The fact that we have 18 million people who were disconnected before the pandemic, Tetiana, and we're probably going to have more that are what I call broadband insecure, we're going to have to do a really good job of ensuring that people are connected to the very functions that are going to save their lives, and telehealth is one of them. Those barriers to being online matter. If you live in a rural community, an urban community, where there's not a lot of access to broadband services, if you cannot afford broadband, for whatever reason, those are going to be barriers that get in the way. There's also this barrier of people who just don't trust the use of technology. I mean, they don't trust it, primarily, for things that are as important as healthcare, and we're going to have to pay attention to that, too, particularly for people like my mother, who, for a long time, would not go online or use her phone to actually access her doctor. Those kinds of things are getting at the edges of why we're seeing people not connected. They don't trust the technology that they're using every day for other functions.

Anderson: So everything that you're saying really goes to this whole larger issue of the digital divide and you've written a lot about how it impacts rural communities, how it impacts urban communities. And one of the things that you've talked about in your writing is this whole idea of bias in machine learning. What is that?

Turner-Lee: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I don't know if I have enough time to actually talk about it in the short period of the scope of our conversation. Listen, we have a digital divide that exists. That digital divide is becoming clearly evident as we look at those who are connected and those who are not. That's one challenge. But then we also have this challenge that, for those of us that are connected, that there's tons of information being collected about us. Think about this pandemic -- all the movies you watched, all the groceries you ordered, all the packages that were delivered to your front door. The Internet knows very well who you are, what you like, what your interests are, and even what you dislike, by what you don't buy. When you add all that together, Tetiana, what you get are machine learning algorithms that pick up on what's the best way to micro target ads to you, what's the best way to surveil the practices and behaviors that you have. And, in some cases, that could be great. I love blue dresses, so every time I get an ad for a blue dress, I'm quite satisfied. But, in other cases, not that great. We have people who actually, because of the color of their skin or their creditworthiness, are denied products and services, based on what the computer actually thinks about them. That's when we see bias in machine learning algorithms.

Anderson: Nicol, you're the first Black woman -- and the first woman, for that matter -- to be the director of the Center for Technology Innovation. What does it mean for you to have a seat at the table to discuss all of these issues and really be a leader in helping to close this digital divide?

Turner-Lee: Technology is changing the way we live, the way we learn, earn, even love, and so having this opportunity to contextualize technology for vulnerable populations, particularly, Black and brown people, it's just an honor. I'm so humbled every time that I'm able to advocate on behalf of these populations through my research. And it's important that we continue to do that because the more voices that are represented, that can speak to the lived experiences of populations that are often not at the table, they're not in the boardroom, they're not at the decision-making level, but they're consuming the product, the more we're able to ensure that policy meets people where they're at, I think we're just going to create just a much better ecosystem and much better industries that are inclusive and responsible towards our needs.

Anderson: You mentioned the word policy and I know that you've done some writing about how America needs a new tech deal to bring better back. I wonder what you're talking with the Biden administration about when it comes to technology innovation and, again, closing that gap.

Turner-Lee: President Biden has actually looked at former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a role model. And, clearly, what the pandemic has done, it's actually forced us to think about, "What new deal do we need in America to ensure that we not only get this virus under wraps, but we also get people back to work?" What has kept us going has been our access to technology. It's helped us with our groceries. It's helped us staying connected to our loved ones. We need to leverage this technology in ways that actually creates jobs. And so this Tech New Deal is a play on the New Deal that Roosevelt came up with. Can we actually develop an America, through this administration, that looks at technology, looks at innovation, as part of the economic recovery of this nation? Roosevelt tried it and, as a result of that, we've got programs like unemployment insurance, when it comes to worker security; we build dams and bridges. And I'm saying let's try it out in the 21st century because we've got a lot of people that we need to get into these occupations that are going to have livable wages, but also bring back a quality of life that we really lost over this last year.

Anderson: If people want to know more about what Brookings Institution is doing, what you're doing, what's the website there?

Turner-Lee: The website to find me at Brookings is obviously You can also follow me on Twitter, @drturnerlee.

Anderson: Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, thank you so much for being here.

Turner-Lee: Thanks for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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