US Network Readiness is at the Heart of ‘Building Back Better’

January 27, 2021

President Biden’s newly inaugurated administration confronts a critical moment for US network readiness. While the US is globally celebrated as an innovation trailblazer, the COVID-19 crisis has posed challenges to its competitiveness. The new administration can leverage and improve on US network readiness to “build back better”. How the administration defines its tech policy priorities in the first 100 days may define US competitiveness in the years to follow. Data and analysis from staff here at the Portulans Institute suggests there is cause for optimism.

For decades, the US has won global praise as a trailblazer in network readiness (that is, an economy’s readiness for the digital future), innovation and competitiveness. However, the country has reached a digital transformation crossroads, as suggested by our 2020 expert panel on North America. The COVID-19 crisis has wounded US competitiveness and exposed the severity of injustices, inequalities and inefficiencies of the country’s digital innovation track record to date, from algorithmic bias in products and policing to dangerous connectivity gaps. Now, the new administration has the unique opportunity to leverage and bolster network readiness to truly “build back better”.

There has already been much commentary provided on President Biden and Vice President Harris’ tech policy priorities, particularly regarding antitrust enforcement, competition policy, content moderation and reforming Section 230, privacy policy, and broadband connectivity. Brookings’ Center on Technology Innovation provides a series of helpful policy summaries and recommendations for the 117th Congress; the Web Foundation defines three key priorities for the Biden-Harris administration to demonstrate digital leadership.

However, the concept of ‘network readiness’ is more than just policy priorities. To this end, the Portulans Institute’s Network Readiness Index (NRI) adopts a holistic approach. Namely, the NRI considers a country’s performance in technology, but also the strength of its governance, its commitment to supporting talent development (and how people can access, and benefit from, technology), and the impact an economy wields on the global stage.

Unsurprisingly, as of 2020, the NRI recognizes the US as the world’s 8th most network-ready economy, of 134 countries analyzed. And while the US should undoubtedly be considered a model of network readiness – particularly in certain policy areas, like future technologies, cybersecurity and talent – there’s no shortage of opportunities for improvement. The Biden-Harris administration will have their hands full in the next four years.

A key strength the US brings to the NRI rankings year after year is US performance in Future Technologies[1] (1st place). The US has a renowned innovation investment culture, with years of targeted policy and regulatory interventions designed to advance the availability, investment and density of future technologies. Namely, in August last year, the government announced a $1 billion research boost for AI and quantum computing. Index data suggests the US is a global leader in a series of related indicators, suggesting an advanced degree of future-ready governance: the US legal framework’s adaptability to emerging technologies (3rd place) and the government’s promotion of investment in emerging technologies (7th place).

The US also consistently distinguishes itself in the Trust sub-pillar (4th place), suggesting a strong track record in cybersecurity (2nd place), secure internet servers (3rd place), and online access to a financial account (7th place). Following the SolarWinds hack and four years of demoting cybersecurity priorities and personnel, there’s evidence the Biden-Harris administration will re-prioritize cybersecurity, supported by an all-star national security team.

Another major area of excellence is US performance in crafting a world-leading talent landscape. Globally, the US has continued to attract and retain some of the world’s top talent, even in spite of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration manoeuvres. In fact, the US is the second-highest performer in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index; NRI data suggests the US is home to some of the world’s most network-ready businesses, with highly competitive global talent.

However, briefly comparing US performance to other high-income economies, there are some major red flags: particularly relating to gaps in digital connectivity and supporting regulation. To reinvigorate competitiveness and stay network-ready, the Biden-Harris administration needs to strengthen its commitments to inclusive, people-first digital innovation.

Connectivity gaps reveal systemic inequalities. Particularly during COVID-19, they threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions. While the US is indeed a global leader in digital innovation, the country consistently underperforms on Access to ICTs (28th place), Rural Gap in Digital Payments (41st place) and Mobile Tariffs (70th), undoubtedly related to its high levels of income inequality (84th place). More often than not, it is the country’s Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that suffer the consequences of the digital divide, with gaps in households with high-speed internet access. (In 2017, a Senate report found 12 million US children live without broadband internet access at home).

As for regulation, while the US is a global leader in the Trust and Inclusion NRI indicators, it ranks in 30th place worldwide for Regulation[2], with particularly poor performance in Privacy Protections (63rd place), particularly compared to other high-income innovator economies. While the current antitrust hearings win global plaudits, the US is playing regulation ‘catch up’. Recent debates about Section 230 and content moderation reform – not to mention the privacy concerns of track-and-trace apps – reveal the gap between digital progress and regulatory oversight.

These core deficiencies consistently undermine US network readiness, and will prevent the Biden-Harris administration from building back better. As long as millions of US citizens face obstacles to meaningful connectivity, recovery will be skewed and only exacerbate inequalities. And as long as regulation fails to ‘catch up’ to recent digital developments, the new administration will be putting out tech policy fires instead of building a comprehensive regulatory framework for reinvigorating competitiveness and innovation. In other words, if network readiness is not at the heart of ‘building back better’, the US will face serious hurdles to short- and long-term recovery.

In the next few weeks, Portulans staff will provide a running commentary on the Biden-Harris administration’s tech policy developments relating to network readiness, inviting key members of our US network to offer their insights and comments.

This blog is part of the ‘NRI Regional Spotlight’ series: a series in which Portulans staff use the Network Readiness Index data and findings to produce targeted analysis and commentary (in addition to insights from the Global Innovation Index and the Global Talent Competitiveness Index). Interested in a deep-dive into your country’s tech competitiveness, innovation readiness and global talent? Email

[1] The Future Technologies sub-pillar includes the indicators: adoption of emerging technologies, investment in emerging technologies, ICT PCT patent applications, computer software spending, and robot density. Network Readiness Index 2020 (p. 290-291).

[2] The Regulation sub-pillar includes the indicators: regulatory quality, ICT regulatory environment, legal framework’s adaptability to emerging technologies, e-commerce legislation and privacy protection by law content.Network Readiness Index 2020 (p. 295-296).

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