Today, the issue of digital equity is receiving more attention than ever. For good reason; Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a daily necessity. It is essential for academic success at all levels and how we find employment, career training and a host of other essential services. In our efforts to level the digital playing field for low income families, we must avoid the assumption that all of them relate to technology, computers and the Internet in the same way. To be effective in digital inclusion efforts, we must recognize that there are at least four different subsets within this population, each with its own unique set of needs.
1) The Early adopters: Research has shown that low income families with school children tend to have a higher rate of broadband adoption, approximately half have access at home. The highest adoption rates are where discounted Internet plans have been offered for a number of years, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Cox’s Connect2Compete. While early adopters are already connected, we should not overlook them. Some are making make great sacrifices to pay market rate for their Internet subscriptions so their children can get online and struggle to keep up their payments. Some rely on expensive smartphone data plan. Others have connection speeds to slow to get much done. Many have outdated computers, little or no tech support and need training and access to online resources.
As the online world continues to evolve, digital inclusion practitioners will never be out of a job. Under resourced families will always need ongoing support to take advantage of all the Internet has to offer. This need was recently out in a recent Pew Research study. It revealed that 52% of adults lacked “digital readiness” to pursue online learning. This group is largely made up of older, low income adults. (See http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/20/digital-readiness-gaps/)
2) The Uninformed: There are still low income families that know they need to be online and can afford a discounted Internet plan but simply don’t know they are available. This is one area where we can have an immediate impact by bringing awareness to these families through resident signup and training events. ISPs like Comcast, Cox and Google Fiber have staff members in in cities where they offer discounted Internet service who are dedicated to this type of outreach. They are seeking local partners to help them stage these types of awareness events.
3) The Financially Challenged: Public housing families have incomes of less than $1,000 a month. For most, the only way they get connected is if someone else pays for it. This was the case for 80% of homes that were brought online in the first year of HUD’s ConnectHome initiative. While no federal funds were made available to support the initiative, cities, housing authorities, and corporate and philanthropy partners stepped up to provide funding and free connections. Various approaches were used; distributing Sprint hotspots, installing Wi-Fi systems in multifamily properties and sponsoring families using the Internet Essential Opportunity gift cards. It is important to note that owning a computer, laptop or tablet is actually be the most important cost barrier to being connected to the Internet. This is why effective digital inclusion outreach must include providing free or low cost devices as part of the strategy.
The Unconvinced: Lastly, there those who can afford a discounted Internet connection but are simply not convinced that they need it. In this group are those who feel all they need is access through a smartphone. In order to close the “Homework Gap,” adult heads of household must be convinced of the high value of robust in-home access. When it comes to broadband adoption efforts, this can be the most challenging group of all, representing a significant portion of households living on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. Some are basically unaware of all the benefits of connectivity. Others have never had a chance to see how much more can be done using a full sized screen and keyboard instead of just smartphone. There are also parents who are unfamiliar or even intimidated by technology and choose not to get involved with computers and the Internet.
The only way to influence those in this final group is a long-term dedicated educational and marketing effort. It requires multiple class sessions and, often, one-on-one tutoring to help them learn all that is possible online and to gain the confidence they need to become productive users of the Internet.
When President Obama announced the ConnectALL initiative, he declared the goal was to connect 20 million more Americans to the Internet. While we have the national spotlight, it’s a good time to help policymakers understand that, in order to do this, it is going to take a significant infusion of money from the government, corporate and philanthropic sectors. Too many efforts focus only on providing computers and connectivity but fail to factor in the social dynamic of broadband adoption. Successful digital inclusions efforts need both dedicated leadership and “boots on the ground” to be executed successfully. Bringing the last group of non-adopters will be very labor intensive. This where we will need funding to make a real difference.
Rep. Eva Clayton
When Xerox CEO Ursula Burns steps down from her position later this year, it will mark the end of having an African-American woman leading a Fortune 500 company as its chief executive officer. Burns, in retelling the story of her rise to success, acknowledges that her mother “knew that education was [her] way up and out.”
Long before Burns graduated from Columbia University and worked her way up to become an executive at Xerox, she keenly understood quite intimately that access to knowledge was the stepping-stone of success. As technology is increasingly integrated into every level of education today, students without access to the internet at home find themselves at a huge disadvantage among their peers. This disparity is known as the “homework gap,” and students who come from minority, low-income or rural households disproportionately fall into it. What’s more, this same population is on the wrong side of the digital divide, which is more broadly defined as the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.
African Americans and Hispanics are three times as likely as whites to be “smartphone-dependent” because they lack both high-speed internet access at home and hardly any other means of getting online beyond their mobile devices. These statistics hold true for Americans with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year. Closing the homework gap and digital divide is one of the major challenges of our time, since high-speed internet is the modern economic leveler that enables social mobility.
As providers seek to attract a younger and more diverse consumer base, there’s a new tool in the toolkit with “free data” programs that, in some ways, help address some of the pressing societal challenges facing underserved and unserved communities—both rural and urban.
The concept of free data is simple. Companies cover some of the cost of accessing content (i.e., websites and apps) on mobile devices, leaving consumers with more mobile data in their monthly data plans to use in other ways, including to complete homework, look up health information, explore job opportunities, stay connected with family or simply read the news.
It comes as no surprise that consumers are embracing free-data programs. And why wouldn’t they? Who could be against giving people more access to online content for free? The opponents of free data ignore the user rates and are focused on trying to influence the Federal Communications Commission to ban free-data programs, despite the overwhelming public support for them. While these groups continue to equate free-data programs with other unrelated tech issues and make erroneous claims about how they could affect mobile services, they continue to completely ignore the potential benefits that free data could have.
Closing the homework gap and digital divide is vital to addressing long-standing income-inequality issues in communities that continue to be left behind. Access to quality education has always been a fundamental building block of upward mobility, and for students who have limited options for getting online, a smartphone represents their “way up and out,” as Burns would put it; and free-data programs will open more doors to all the internet has to offer.
Regulators in Washington, D.C., can aid the policy discussion of socioeconomic equality and upward mobility by supporting programs such as free data, when applied fairly and equally. This will allow an exciting, new consumer mobile-internet development to grow and expand.
For millennials and Generation Z, the future starts now, and in order for our young people to reach their full potential, we need to ensure that more minority and low-income households have access to and utilize technology to advance.