Anne Schwieger, Boston’s broadband and digital equity advocate, explains: “Broadband is best understood as an ecology that allows places and people to adapt, evolve, and create.” But for too many people, the digital skills needed to use broadband effectively are too elusive. Governments—with nonprofits, private broadband providers, and community support—are working to ensure that broadband is not just deployed but used. That’s a multifaceted effort that depends on trust and resources. Cities—like Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Charlotte, North Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; and Seattle, Washington—have created digital inclusion plans that, as in Louisville’s case, teach coding skills, basic use of a computer, and how to use online courses.
I. Supporting Digital-Skills: Literacy and Beyond
Even in a time of seeming ubiquitous usage, support for the acquisition of digital skills remains important. Surprisingly, even as recently as in 2016, a slight majority of Americans remained “relatively hesitant” to embrace broadband technology and devices.
Successful, community-led inclusion efforts have spawned beneficial outcomes—and useful lessons. Benton Fellow Denise Linn Riedl—now the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of South Bend, Indiana—has analyzed well-designed, inclusive processes that use civic engagement to deploy more plentiful broadband options in cities like Boston, Chicago, and Kansas City, Missouri. In mid-2019, John Horrigan, a leader in the study of broadband deployment and adoption, summarized lessons from cities that have fostered digital inclusion, including the importance of planning and local leadership. He noted the importance of dedicated city staff, effective community outreach, and funding. Both the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and Next Century Cities have published valuable guidance on successful digital inclusion efforts. For example, the NDIA publication provides a checklist for the establishment of a digital-literacy training program that includes items that help tailor programs with particular topics of relevance to specific users, including seniors, job seekers, adult education students, and young mothers.
Cities have gone to work to improve people’s digital skills.(1) For instance, Louisville’s digital-inclusion strategy recognizes that “the vast majority of current and future job openings will require basic computer skills.” Louisville’s efforts include teaching coding, instructing on the basic use of a computer, and helping people access online courses that teach technical skills.
Rural Americans face deployment challenges. But there is more, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has explained. Rural populations are more likely to be older (and therefore less digitally literate), lower-income, and geographically isolated. For example, Rural counties make up nearly 85 percent of those counties where more than 20 percent of the population is age 65 or older.(2) Of course, internet access is designed to erase the limitations and burdens of distance, which means that strategies to bring rural areas online should be coupled with (i) adoption programs that reach to individuals, including older people, and (ii) support for institutions that can use broadband to reach people with telehealth and similar social services.
Harness Community Resources and Leadership
Literally defined, a “community” is a group of people with overlapping and complementary interests. Digital-inclusion plans created by local governments work in concert with coalitions, fostering coordination between nonprofits and other entities, including broadband providers. For example, the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion counts among its co-founding members Connecting for Good, the Kansas City Public Library, and Kansas City’s local government. The coalition has grown to include the Housing Authority of Kansas City, school districts, other library systems, broadband providers, and a variety of nonprofits and foundations. The coalition’s website allows residents to search for “connections, computers, and training” near their homes, yielding a long list of libraries, community centers, neighborhood associations, YMCAs, and even local businesses offering digital-connectivity services, including convenient Wi-Fi hotspots. Other cities, like Austin, also prioritize coordination across different community sectors to better satisfy community broadband needs.
Some of the most successful local digital-inclusion programs across the country have been able to spread well beyond their original areas. Since 2000, Boston’s Tech Goes Home program has provided more than 20,000 affordable computers to those in need, while also providing digital-skills training and assistance securing home internet access to more than 30,000 people. The Tech Goes Home model has been successfully replicated in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has led to digital-equity partnerships with schools in Las Cruces, New Mexico; Education Connection in Litchfield, Connecticut; and the Housing Authority of New Orleans and Loyola University in New Orleans.
Deploy Federal and State Resources
Both the federal government and the states should provide additional assistance to digital-literacy efforts. For example, Washington Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced the Digital Equity Act to create a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program within the Department of Commerce to allocate federal grant money to states to fulfill their own individualized State Digital Equity Plans. The proposed law would require an analysis of how the plans’ specific objectives “will impact and interact with the State’s—(i) economic and workforce development goals, plans, and outcomes; (ii) educational outcomes; (iii) health outcomes; (iv) civic and social engagement; and (v) delivery of other essential services.”
In fact, some states are engaging in such efforts already. Maine’s digital equity plan is particularly illustrative— focusing on the importance of digital-skills training in rural places. Because Maine’s tourism businesses have not adapted quickly enough to the use of the internet by tourists, the plan targets digital training efforts for this industry specifically.(3) The plan also recognizes the needs of its high proportion of seniors to further develop digital skills and provides vital lists of resources for more affordable internet service, digital devices, public internet access locations, and digital literacy training. Similarly, the North Carolina state broadband plan recognizes the vital central role played by the state’s libraries and focuses state-level efforts on ensuring those libraries have the grant-writing assistance they need.
Competitive processes that distribute federal dollars for digital-literacy programs should both incentivize the winning localities and provide lessons to the localities that do not win. The application criteria for the award of any federal or state dollars should focus on the designation of important local outcomes, the robustness of local leadership, including with private and nonprofit participants, and the manner in which outcomes will be tracked and evaluated.
Evaluate What Works Best
Ongoing evaluation is a critical way for communities to learn what works and what does not. A good example comes from the Digital C digital-literacy program in Cleveland, which offers free instruction and career-preparedness courses to underserved people in that city, with support from The Cleveland Foundation. The need is obvious—about 30 percent of the households in Cleveland had no internet access of any kind as of 2017.(4) A January 2019 survey of participants showed that about half of the people seeking jobs said that the program helped them be better prepared for employment, and 45 percent of those who are working believed that the program helped them in their jobs; in addition, one-third said that they were using digital skills to manage health-care issues, and one-quarter reported that they took the program to improve their ability to age in place. The survey results also suggest an ongoing benefit to having received training: 42 percent of the participants said that they had taught the digital skills they acquired to someone else.
Susan Corbett, who heads the National Digital Equity Center, has also emphasized the importance of ongoing evaluation. For example, the 2018 Community Technology Plan for the town of Stonington, Maine, which is designed to help reverse population decline, expressly incorporates into its strategy monitoring and measuring outcomes and continuing review based on “feedback, monitoring, and community involvement.” The North Carolina state broadband plan also calls for improved, data-based monitoring of adoption issues.
II. Incorporating Digital Skills Training in Regional Economic-Growth Strategies
Regional, state, and local economic-growth efforts have traditionally focused on finding place-specific advantages that can improve an area’s prosperity and opportunity for the people who live there. (Think of the familiar “clusters” of industries—automobiles in Ohio, agriculture in Fresno, California, communications in the New York area, education and knowledge creation in Raleigh, North Carolina, and wood products in Mississippi.) Governments that have implemented successful regional strategies have recognized the importance of a workforce skilled in the requirements of an industrial cluster.
That’s why economic-development strategies today are “riding the shoulders of what regional leaders see as some of their uncommon or even unique advantages in the digital derby.” As the following examples illustrate, the availability of robust broadband is recognized to be a tool to spur economic development and is, therefore, at the center of regional and local economic strategies:
- Anne Schwieger, Boston’s Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate and a trained city planner, explains that “[t]hrough this lens of economic opportunity, broadband is best understood as an ecology that allows places and people to adapt, evolve, and create.”
- The Appalachian Regional Commission has recognized the importance of broadband-based education and training as part of its broader economic-development efforts.(5)
- Connected Nation’s Digital Works program has linked with more than 70 corporate employers who have helped to design training programs that are tailored to the needs of business looking for workers.
III. What We’ve Learned
Broadband strategies, as Boston’s Schwieger says, need to include “aggressive efforts to increase broadband adoption.” A key element to adoption is the development of skills so people are able to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet. This digital literacy is a language, a language with which we become better speakers, learners, creators, employees, entrepreneurs, and citizens. The need for digital skills to get and succeed in new jobs is ubiquitous, across rural, suburban and urban areas, across demographics, across age groups. And the impact of success is equally broad — building economic success that strengthens a community, state and nation.
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Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017).
- City of Austin, Texas, “Community Technology Services,” http://www.austintexas.gov/digitalinclusion, accessed September 18, 2019; City of Austin, Texas, “Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan,” http://austintexas.gov/page/digital-inclusion-strategic-plan, accessed September 18, 2019; City of Kansas City, Missouri, “Digital Equity Strategic Plan,” https://www.kcmo.gov/city-hall/ departments/city-manager-s-office/digital-equity-strategic-plan, accessed September 18, 2019; Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance (organization website), http://www.charlottedigitalinclusionalliance.org/, accessed September 18, 2019; City of Seattle, “Digital Equity,” http://www.seattle.gov/tech/initiatives/digital-equity, accessed September 18, 2019; City of Louisville Office of Civic Innovation, “Digital Inclusion,” https://projects.lsvll.io/projects/digital-inclusion/, accessed September 18, 2019.
- Many of those counties “lack sufficient capacity to address the growing challenges of aging.” “USDA Rural America at a Glance: 2018 Edition,” 5. And “22% of adults living in a rural area say they never go online, a share that is more than double that among urban or suburban residents.” According to USDA, among a set of rural counties where the total population has been dropping “[t]ransportation, healthcare, retail and other needed services are generally harder to access.” USDA, “Rural America at a Glance – 2017 Edition,” 6.
- State of Maine and the National Digital Equity Center, “Digital Equity and Digital Inclusion Plan,” January 1, 2019.
- Samantha Schartman-Cyck, “Restart: Survey Results on the Outcome of Digital C’s Basic Digital Literacy Program,” Connected Insights, January 2019, 2, (citing U.S. Census data).
- Appalachian Regional Commission, “Investing in Appalachia’s Future: The Appalachian Regional Commission’s Five-Year Strategic Plan for Capitalizing on Appalachia’s Opportunities 2016-2020,” approved November 2015, 22, (skills training including distance learning)
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