Net Inclusion 2016: Addressing the Digital Divide From Miami to Kansas City

The following is a Guest Blog by Romina Angelelli, a student at Florida International University. In May, Romina attended the 2016 Net Inclusion Summit at the Kansas City Public Library. In the post below, she discusses key insights from the summit and how it connects to her work addressing the digital divide in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Net Inclusion 2016:
Addressing the Digital Divide From Miami to Kansas City

Thirty-four million, a number that's been running through my head ever since it was mentioned by Federal Communications Commission staffer Gigi Sohn in her keynote speech at the first annual Net Inclusion Summit. As you read this, there are 34 million Americans who can’t access this blog even if they wanted to. These Americans lack access to something that has quickly become a necessity in our country: high-speed Internet. Without it, they may be unable to access their government benefits or be able to apply for a job. So many of us are fascinated by how quickly technology is moving and by all of the ways the Internet has made our lives easier, but we continue to forget those who are being left behind. The faster technology progresses, the harder it will be for 34 million of us to catch up.

Seeing so many people come together for the purpose of digital inclusion at the conference, hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance at the Kansas City Public Library, made me hopeful about the future of the digital divide. It was great to see how far Kansas City has come in the past five years and hear several remarks about the efforts being made to bring access to those who don’t have it. Although Kansas City is a unique case due to the partnership with Google Fiber, it seems progress like this is possible in other cities throughout our nation.

This past semester at Florida International University, I was lucky enough to partake in a senior project to bring Wi-Fi to Liberty Square, an underprivileged community in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Our class created a splash page (an informative, introductory Web page) and a site hosting numerous resources for the community. We were under the guidance of Dr. Moses Shumow and, although the project has not been finalized, he will continue to work towards digital inclusion at Liberty Square.

The conference allowed me to see what the future of Liberty Square could be if we achieved higher rates of broadband adoption, but there is still a harsh possibility that the community, and many others like it, could be left behind. Digital literacy was at the forefront of our class project, and as I learned at the conference, it is an important aspect of digital inclusion in other communities as well.

Various success stories were the highlights of the panel titled No More Silos: Overcoming Barriers to Digital Inclusion Partnerships Among Libraries, Schools, City Halls & Community Organizations. As I heard these stories, I couldn't help but think about all the barriers we’ve yet to overcome in Miami. I learned that institutional silos, such as local politics, differ in every city. Regrettably, there is no national uniformity with regards to digital literacy and access. While cities like Kansas City are well ahead due to their partnerships with Google Fiber, other cities continue being left behind. Everyday there is something new to learn and, without broadband access, the learning gap becomes insurmountable.

Another takeaway is that digital literacy has yet to be truly defined, or rather, seems to have an ever-changing definition. There are no standards for digital literacy but already, digital literacy is becoming a part of the educational system. For example, at the local high school near Liberty City, students are required to take an online course. This presents an obvious problem for students who have no access at home or the skills to be deemed "digitally literate."

At the No More Silos session, there was an audience interjection that stood out. Someone mentioned the differences between the terms "digital divide," "digital equity," and "digital inclusion," pointing out our constant mischaracterization of these phrases due to the lack of clear definitions. We use these phrases interchangeably when, in reality, they each refer to different issues. The term "digital divide" addresses the discrepancy in access to information and technology identified by demographics and/or geographical region. "Digital equity" and "digital inclusion" are often confused because the word inclusion suggests equity, though that is not necessarily always the case. In reality, "digital equity" is symbolic for the leveling of opportunity. Usually it is the underprivileged who lack access to these resources, resources which are fundamental in educational and workplace development. "Digital inclusion" is perhaps the newest and broadest term. The focus is placed on how policy may be used to ensure access and opportunity in all communities.

These terms are clearly divergent by definition, but often times those seeking to address one of these issues are presented with all the others. Where there is inequity, there is a need for inclusion, and a need for inclusion suggests there is an evident digital divide. This confusion suggests there is more to broadband adoption than meets the eye. What about all of those Americans who now have access, but are unable to use it due to a lack of digital literacy? Seniors are often faced with this problem and, within underprivileged neighborhoods, digital illiteracy affects a wide range of generations.

At the conference, I also heard from Michael Liimatta, Manager of ConnectHome at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said, “Public Housing is the epicenter of the digital divide,” while speaking at the Increasing Digital Equity for Public Housing Residents: ConnectHome and Local Strategies session. The ConnectHome project, an Obama Administration initiative, is a public-private collaboration to narrow the digital divide for families with school-age children who live in HUD-assisted housing. The project reaches 28 cities across the nation. ConnectHome was described as a pilot program and Liimatta mentioned that research will be useful in bringing the initiative to other cities around the United States. However, action is necessary.

After attending the Net Inclusion Summit of 2016, I have realized digital inclusion is truly the civil rights issue of the decade. It is imperative we bridge the digital divide and continue to champion digital inclusion and digital equity. It is up to us to level the playing field on the Internet and include all of those who have yet to gain access.