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Free Wi-Fi: Convenient and Crucial For Social Equality

Millennials are digital people.

We’re the first generation to grow up almost entirely in the digital age. The internet has come to define not only the way we think, but the way we solve problems, present ourselves professionally, and voice our opinions. From searching for information to staying in touch with friends, the internet allows people from literally all over the world to voice their opinions resulting (for the most part) in a more transparent, connected, and globalized world.

But the fact of that matter is that for many Americans, we don’t realize how paralyzed we are without internet until our phone dies, Comcast decides to take a day off, or we hit a dead zone on the metro. It is true that we use the Internet for a lot of frivolous activities, such as solving a dispute with a friend at a bar over which Olsen twin was in rehab or figuring out whether the lyrics are “Simba and the Whale” or “Send Me On My Way.” But the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has also changed the way we fulfill our right to food, water, and shelter — by changing the way we make and manage our money, take care of our health, and advance our career.

With more and more job openings being posted online, access to Wi-Fi has become more and more critical to bridging the socioeconomic gap and fulfilling social equality. If a potential employer emails you to come in for an interview, you have hours, not days, to respond and leave a good impression. In order to prepare for the interview, you need access to the internet to research the company and find out more about your interviewer. In the digital age where each job listing may receive more than 100 applications, those that lose out are the ones without ubiquitous access to the high-speed internet so many of us take for granted today.

A friend of mine recently told a story about how her cousin lost out on a job she was the most qualified candidate for because she didn’t have an updated LinkedIn profile. During my time at Google, there was an urban legend floating around that no one had ever been hired without a Gmail email address. (I doubt this is true, but I have yet to meet a Google employee who does not have a Gmail address). Whether we like it or not, digital savvy and a reputable online presence are becoming increasingly important to attaining the higher paying jobs. Something as small as our email address has become our digital salutation, our electronic handshake.

But what does this mean for those that don’t know what LinkedIn is because they’ve never had regular access to a computer, for those that miss an important job opening because the library that hosts free Wi-Fi is closed? The evolving nature of the Internet in our professional lives is changing faster than the telecom industry and policymakers can keep up with it.  Access to wireless Internet, if not evaluated by policymakers with the same focus as they would on access to education or employment or shelter, threatens to create the next great gap in social equality.

Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology and recent winner of the 2013 Ted Prize, recently proposed a solution to bridge this gap. After overhearing conversations between wealthy parents about how their children are “so gifted with computers,” he decided to try an experiment. Mitra carved a hole out of his research studio into an adjacent slum, and allowed the children living in the slum free access to the computer.  What he found was that the low-income children quickly learned basic computer skills, without any outside guidance or tutoring. What Mitra found, essentially, is that when simply given access, any child, rich or poor, intellectual or practical, can become skilled in computers and tap into the global digital supply chain.

But first, they need to be given access.

With access to the Internet and its endless stream of information, anyone can strive for some of the highest paying jobs in today’s marketplace. Software engineers can make anywhere from $67,000 to $101,000 while computer science grads can expect compensation higher than $64,000 right out of college. Some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs have been college or high school drop-outs with an idea and an Internet connection. With free online courses put on by websites such as codeacademy.org and elite universities such as Stanford hosting computer sciences classes for free, all you need in today’s era to learn how to code is a fast internet connection and time. In a digital age where face-to-face contact is more rare and information sharing more crucial, free Wi-fi is quickly becoming vital to bridging the socioeconomic gap.

From a policy perspective, free Wi-Fi is far easier and more cost-effective to implement than many other social welfare programs and has the potential to create far greater lasting global impact. Policymakers need to work together to facilitate a regulatory and political environment that encourages innovation and competition in the broadband space.

Government leaders need to incentivize service providers like Verizon and AT&T to develop the infrastructure and work toward a nation where every citizen has access to the internet, regardless of income, race, or geographical location. Free Wi-Fi is no longer just convenient, it is crucial for social equality. 

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