Four Essentials for Digital Inclusion Efforts
Over the last few months, I have been speaking with and visiting digital inclusion organizations across the United States to better understand local efforts to address the digital divide. Digital inclusion is a national priority in the United States. High-speed Internet access is widely recognized as a necessity for full participation in today’s society. Employers, educators, businesses, healthcare providers, and civic institutions expect people to have access to computers and broadband connectivity. However, accessible, reliable, and affordable broadband service continues to be out of reach for millions of Americans, many of whom live in low-income households. This gap in adoption of high-speed Internet and the lack of skills needed to use broadband-enabled tools in meaningful ways continue to be significant problems that policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have all focused their attention on for over a decade.
Today, digital inclusion organizations in low-income communities across the United States are working to address gaps in adoption. Many of these inclusion organizations have been working for the past twenty years to help low-income people connect to the Internet and use the content and services found there to make their lives better. More recently, citywide and regional digital inclusion initiatives have emerged to connect local efforts to broader policy initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels. Many organizations continue to face struggles due to a lack of capacity to support their digital inclusion activities and the funding needed to help low-income individuals and families gain the full benefits of high-speed Internet access.
In my conversations with and observations of eight digital inclusion organizations, I’ve identified four essential activities that are necessary to help low-income individuals and families adopt broadband in ways that are most appropriate to their personal needs and contexts:
- Providing low-cost broadband: Cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. Successful interventions need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.” While all low-income individuals and families who participated in this study understood the value of broadband connectivity, most explained that cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption. Successful digital inclusion efforts should recognize the role that persistent poverty plays in shaping people’s abilities to access and use computers and the Internet. The findings suggest that more research is needed to understand budgeting issues and other concerns related to people’s experiences living in poverty.
- Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services: Many digital inclusion organizations have developed innovative digital literacy training strategies to assist those who do not feel the Internet is relevant to them as well as those who already understand the importance of the Internet to their everyday lives. Many organizations also provide mobile digital literacy training in which they go outside their physical walls to reach people in places that are convenient to them.
- Making low-cost computers available: Low-cost or free computers are often just as important as having access to low-cost or free Internet options, particularly for people in low-income communities. Digital inclusion organizations have embraced this reality by refurbishing older computers and making them available to low-income people for free or at a reduced cost. Some digital inclusion organizations also provide ongoing technical support to residents who need the social and technical assistance to keep their computers up and running—and connected online—over time.
- Operating public access computing centers: Many digital inclusion organizations also maintain public access computing facilities that allow residents to access technology in places in which they feel comfortable and supported. These spaces also complement the digital literacy classes that are often offered in the same location. Low-income individuals and families value public access computing centers because they are often in convenient locations and have helpful staff that provide them with one-on-one support with computers and broadband Internet access.
My research also identifies a networked model of meaningful broadband adoption, which includes the important role that community partners play in working together with digital inclusion organizations. These partners include schools, healthcare providers, public libraries, local governments and city agencies, as well as organizations that work with ISPs to provide low-cost Internet options to low-income individuals and families. In short, my research also highlights:
- The importance of citywide and regional initiatives: All of the organizations I spoke with identified the importance of citywide and regional digital inclusion initiatives and indicated the strength in coming together with other community partners and collaborators to support digital inclusion activities and share best practices. However, funding remains an issue to support these broader digital inclusion coalitions.
- Concerns about program sustainability: No one or mix of commercial providers delivers the full suite of access, computing, and training that non-adopters need to take advantage of the content and services broadband has to offer. Moreover, most organizations that participated in this study expressed a concern that funding for organizations is limited. More funding and support are needed for all organizations in this study that are connecting low-income residents to low-cost Internet, digital literacy training, low-cost computers, and public access computing.
- The need for outcomes-based evaluation: Most of the digital inclusion organizations that participated in this study did not have outcomes-based evaluation frameworks. However, all recognized the importance of having one. One of the surprising findings from the study was the need for outcomes-based evaluation frameworks at both the organizational and citywide/regional levels. This remains a need in many of the organizations studied.
- Digital inclusion and broader policy goals: This report also joins other researchers who have argued that digital inclusion needs to be connected to broader policy issues in order to show the impacts of digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption initiatives.
The goal of my research is to help policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as researchers, practitioners, and other key stakeholders, gain a deeper understanding of how digital inclusion organizations and their community partners can be successful in their efforts to promote meaningful broadband adoption. Rather than focusing solely on the human-to-computer interactions, meaningful broadband adoption emphasizes the human-to-human interactions that are most helpful to individuals and families. Poverty is intimately connected to the challenges facing low-income people in adopting broadband Internet at home. By looking outside the home and into the community, digital inclusion researchers and policymakers can gain a deeper understanding of the important role that community-based and social service organizations, as trusted community assets, play in helping people gain access to technology in meaningful ways that reflect their everyday experiences with poverty.
Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives is available at benton.org/broadband-inclusion-adoption-report In the coming days, I’ll be sharing more about the findings of my research.
Dr. Colin Rhinesmith is a Benton Faculty Research Fellow. He is also an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Rhinesmith’s research investigates digital inclusion and broadband adoption. Recent research looks at how community anchor institutions, such as public libraries and community technology centers, promote digital inclusion through public access computing, home broadband access, and digital literacy training.