African Americans and the Digital Divide
Organizations on a mission to bring broadband access to all Americans.
The year was 1994 and somewhere in the background, there was probably some Boyz II Men or Jodeci blaring, most likely on cassette tape. My parents had just purchased our first home computer and America Online was the greatest thing since the advent of the telephone in my mind. I remember my friends coming over and getting online; chat rooms were such a source of fascination for us. It was beyond our comprehension that we could be on a computer and meeting people who were half a world away in another state or country, but yet, we were connected instantly.
Yeah, sure there was the phone, but this was different. There were communities where people from New Jersey and California and London could gather based on common interests and it was unlike anything we had ever imagined.
Fast forward a few years to 1998 when I was in college.
By that time, internet usage was common and the fascination had worn off somewhat. But while I had experience using computers and was relatively comfortable using the internet for research and other explorations, I didn't have a personal computer at college. I used a Brother word processor in my dorm room if I wanted to type papers and not have to sit in a computer lab all night. Back then, it seemed like a luxury to even just have a word processor in my room. But then again, those were the times.
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In the minds of some people, broadband internet is readily accessible in 2012. Our world has become so digitized that any Boyz II Men or Jodeci song that I want to listen to today would likely be purchased and/or listened to online. Now, instead of just talking in a chat room, I can Skype someone and have that instant face time no matter where either of us are in the world. In fact, I can use Tango on a cell phone and have the same face to face effect. In this day and age, it's almost unfathomable that a college student wouldn't have a computer. A 2010 survey of 1,200 college students by the research firm Student Monitor found that 95% of them owned at least one computer. And yet, there is still a digital divide.
While in some countries, broadband access has been made a human right, in the US, there is much more that we need to do to increase access , including providing access to people in rural and low income communities. In 2011, 68% of Americans were using broadband services as opposed to mobile service and dial up. The number of those without broadband service is still about 100 million Americans. The difference in quality and ease of usage between broadband and other access methods creates a great disparity in being able to fully participate in the digital world. But the three main barriers to broadband adoption are: a lack of understanding of relevance or usefulness, cost of the computer and cost of the internet service.
I spent the latter part of last week attending the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council's (MMTC) Broadband and Social Justice Summit and the focus was very much on the rights of all to have broadband access. Using as inspiration Dr. King's dream for a nation where there could be justice and equality for men and women of all races, creeds, colors, and backgrounds, the summit focused on the 21st century fight for digital rights. While African Americans and Latinos are largely leading the digital divide when it comes to mobile internet usage, minorities, low income populations, the elderly and Americans living in rural areas lag behind in broadband adoption, with less than 50% of that combined total group having adopted broadband. Specifically focused on minority adoption, 50% of African Americans and 55% of Hispanics are without broadband access. By bringing together heavy hitters in the media and telecom spaces, the focus of the summit was not just on broadband adoption as a philosophy, but on the practices and debates that will ultimately help us get there.
One of the speakers at the Congressional Luncheon during the summit was Rebecca Arbogast, Vice President of Global Public Policy with Comcast. During her address, she noted the various challenges that are the result of not having broadband access. As our world becomes increasingly more digital, many services and opportunities are presented online. The ability to find a job, find healthcare providers, pay bills and in one state, file unemployment claims are all done on the web with more and more frequency. In fact, according to the FCC, over 80% of Fortune 500 companies require you read that again and require online job applications. The bridge for some low-income people between the jobs and education that could provide them more opportunities and services that can make life easier is in some ways the ability to unlock the broadband access. Enter, Comcast's Internet Essentials, a program that provides high-speed internet to school-age children and their families at a discounted rate.
Earlier this week, I was at an event hosted by Comcast that focused on the program. Internet Essentials which launched in September, but was committed to by Comcast earlier in the year in response to the FCC's charge for greater broadband accessibility has been successful in its first four months and the company is expanding the program to include more families.
When the Internet Essentials program began, it was open to families without existing broadband access who had children in the free lunch program and offered them broadband internet service for $10 a month. For families without computers, the program provided refurbished computers for $150, a rate that is significantly lower than the average retail price, but one that Comcast Executive Vice President, David Cohen says he would like to work on lowering for some. After its initial success, the program expansion is opening up access further to include families who have children in the reduced lunch program, which will allow another 300,000 families a chance to participate. Additionally, connection speeds will be doubling and community groups will be able to buy bulk packages and directly supply any qualified families.
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This type of program is key to increasing opportunities for minority, low income, rural and even elderly populations and it is part of a larger movement within the industry being branded as "Connect to Compete." Connect to Compete is set up as a nonprofit organization that will help increase broadband adoption and digital literacy. Through the nonprofit, disadvantaged communities will be able to access broadband plans for less than $10 per month, pay either $150 for a refurbished computer or $250 for a new computer, and will be trained in digital literacy. Additionally, as noted on the organizations website, connect2compete.org, the partnership will provide educational and training opportunities, like free access to Discovery Education's content and $1 per course online prep or certification classes on Careerbuilder.
The commitments by the FCC, broadband and technology companies to close the digital divide are critical for under-resourced populations to achieve and receive their digital rights. It is an opportunity for families who currently do not have access to high speed internet to close the gap that exists in a digital world. There is still more work to be done, but this is a step in the right direction and with a three year program commitment, my hope is that we see a real difference in the number of underserved communities who are able to fully embrace their digital citizenship.