By Buddy Rizer, CEcD, Executive Director of Economic Development, Loudoun County, Virginia
Elevated as global priorities, digital resilience and digital equity are imperative for building an inclusive digital economy
Published in Issue 5 | December 2020
As vaccines continue to roll out, we finally begin to see the light at the end of the pandemic. Now, we can begin the long process of assessing the damage and start the work of economic and social recovery. The COVID-19 outbreak will have long-term impacts on all aspects of our lives now and in the long term. As we look to the future, I see two areas where both, we on the government side, and those in the technology infrastructure world, need to focus on: (1) digital resilience and (2) digital equity.
Digital technologies have become critical in enabling our ability to work, learn, communicate, and connect, shop, and entertain ourselves. As communities encouraged people to stay at home, many turned to their digital devices as their lifeline to the outside world. As a result, reliable digital infrastructure has become increasingly important, to the point where it is no longer a perk but a necessity. As work has evolved, as education has become virtual, and as shopping has gone from bricks to clicks, it now seems that as if to participate in society professionally, educationally, and culturally, our email address is becoming almost as important as our physical address. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of Americans say the Internet has been essential during the COVID-19 outbreak. The same study shows that most Americans view the impact of the Internet positively, and almost 90 percent say it has been essential or important during the coronavirus outbreak.
In Loudoun County, as well as across the Commonwealth of Virginia and indeed much of the world, the data center industry has responded with unprecedented investment to meet the new demands from ongoing teleworking, telemedicine, food and product delivery, online shopping and contactless payments, remote learning, and entertainment. 2020 will be the largest year ever for investment in Data Center Alley, with more than six million square feet of new data centers in some stage of development across the county. In response to the immediacy and the size of the need, we’re seeing discernible patterns in the development process, including increased density (more than 2GW of load is expected to be commissioned this year), multi-story buildings and an emphasis on taking advantage of our Fast-Track program, with 26 new projects in process since March 16.
As the industry has done an amazing job of responding to the need and providing reliable and expandable infrastructure, special attention should also be paid to the importance of what I call digital equity. As we have watched our worlds revolve around the Internet and connectivity, we must remain conscious of the gap between those who do or do not have access to technology and how it may hinder the ability to compete professionally, educationally, and culturally. Even when the pandemic subsides, I expect work will become a hybrid version of what we see today, with 54 percent working full or part time from home and where we were prior to the crisis when only 27 percent did so. Knowledge workers remain most likely to adapt most easily to this new way of working, however there are many workers who do not have the ability (or the resources) to work from home. More than 54 percent of DC area homes have at least one person working from home right now. There is also a social aspect to this trend. Higher-income households are four times as likely to telework than lower-income households.
The same challenges occur when it comes to our educational system. Studies show that teenagers who have access to home computers are almost 10 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not.