In recent years, it’s become clear among academics, community organizers and government policymakers that addressing the issue of access is just the first step, not the whole solution, to the digital divide.
Once connected, some people don’t have the skills to make full use of the Internet, or don’t participate in social and civic life online because they’re too busy working two jobs to make ends meet.
The barriers are numerous and complex, meaning that the problem remains persistent, and not subject to a single, easy fix.
But without universal broadband adoption and full participation in digital life, to use one example, governments must maintain digital and paper systems that are duplicative and wasteful. The divide also makes it hard for schools to embrace digital tools, knowing some students have them and some don’t. And with more job applications moving online, being on the wrong side of the digital divide can make it harder to get a job.
“The size, the nature, and the endurance of the digital divide has a lot of impact on the U.S.,” said Tessie Guillermo, president and CEO of ZeroDivide, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that works with community groups across the U.S. to address issues of digital exclusion. “In terms of global competition, innovation and economic power, if 20 percent of our people are not on the Internet, their contribution to the economic vitality of the U.S. is not being maximized.”
Back in 2010, the FCC released a National Broadband Plan that was an ambitious attempt to reach universal broadband adoption while addressing the many complexities of the digital divide. Rather than fading away, the FCC made three important announcements this year that show it still has momentum:
- The Universal Service Fund that for decades had been dedicated to telephone adoption was transformed into the Connect America Fund, which will generate $4.5 billion to help millions get access to broadband connections.
- Connect to Compete, an agreement with broadband providers to create a $9.95-a-month plan for families that are eligible for federal lunch programs.
- And the creation of a nonprofit public-private partnership with a long list of telecommunications and tech companies that will provide digital literacy and skill training.Remarkably, it’s all being done without cutting other services, or raising any taxes. And while not revealing details, Genachowski said he expects more progress in 2012.We are still a long way from closing the digital divide, to be sure. But by keeping the topic on the national agenda while also managing to make progress should be considered a huge victory for Genachowski and the FCC.
Affordability: 36 percent of non-adopters, or 28 million adults, said
they do not have home broadband because the monthly fee is too
expensive (15 percent), they cannot afford a computer, the installation
fee is too high (10 percent), or they do not want to enter into a
long-term service contract (9 percent). According to survey
respondents, their average monthly broadband bill is $41.
Digital Literacy: 22 percent of non-adopters, or 17 million adults,
indicated that they do not have home broadband because they lack the
digital skills (12 percent) or they are concerned about potential
hazards of online life, such as exposure to inappropriate content or
security of personal information (10 percent)
Relevance: 19 percent of non-adopters, or 15 million adults, said they
do not have broadband because they say that the Internet is a waste of
time, there is no online content of interest to them or, for dial-up
users, they are content with their current service.
Digital Hopefuls, who make up 22 percent of non-adopters, like the idea
of being online but lack the resources for access.
Few have a computer and, among those who use one, few feel comfortable
with the technology. Some 44 percent cite affordability as a barrier to
adoption and they are also more likely than average to say digital
literacy are a barrier. This group is heavily Hispanic and has a high
share of African-Americans.
Prior to the 21st century, literate defined a person’s ability to read and write, separating the educated from the uneducated. With the advent of a new millennium and the rapidity with which technology has changed society, the concept of literacy has assumed new meanings. Experts in the field suggest that the current generation of teenagers—sometimes referred to as the E-Generation—possesses digital competencies to effectively navigate the multidimensional and fast-paced digital environment. For generations of adults who grew up in a world of books, traveling through cyberspace seems as treacherous and intimidating as speaking a new language. In fact, Prensky1 recognized such non-IT-literate individuals as burdened with an accent—non-native speakers of a language, struggling to survive in a strange new world.
We who have technology complain about or love the various changes that happen on a daily basis with the use of the Internet.
Internet Access A Right!!
Vint Cerf had some reflection on the state of the art and whether or not it is a digital right. He said.”
Although some countries around the world argue that Internet access is a fundamental right, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” Vint Cerf, doesn’t see it that way.
“Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself,” Cerf, who is also a Google’s chief Internet evangelist, wrote yesterday in an editorial in The New York Times. “There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.”
It is no secret that the recession has hit our nation hard, particularly in low-income and minority communities. Naturally, many government institutions and private organizations have turned to broadband to help them cut costs by streamlining various processes and keeping productivity levels high. In general, this is a productive use of a transformative technology – and embracing it to improve efficiency is certainly the right thing for these organizations to do. But what about the millions of Americans who lack a home computer and who remain unconnected to broadband? How are they supposed to apply for government benefits online, access Web-based job search sites, and otherwise participate in this digital revolution? The short answer is that those who remain unconnected are relegated to second-class digital citizenship. Enhancing the broadband adoption rate across every demographic group must be priority number o
ne for policymakers at every level of government. Without more robust broadband adoption, too many Americans will be stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. Social justice and continued economic prosperity demand a concerted effort to get these non-adopters on a path toward first-class digital citizenship.