U.S. Addresses the Digital Divide Where it Lives
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The biggest news of the week was, of course, the historic accord reached by Iran and a group of six nations led by the United States to significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions. But there was big news in telecommunications, too, as President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro announced ConnectHome, an initiative to extend affordable broadband access to families living in HUD-assisted housing. Through ConnectHome, Internet service providers, non-profits and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units in 28 communities across the nation.
The State of the Digital Divide
This week, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) released Mapping the Digital Divide, an analysis of the state of the digital divide using new data from the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), which the CEA linked with the most recent version of the National Broadband Map (NBM). Overall, the evidence shows that the U.S. has made progress, with the largest gains occurring for those groups that started with the least. (1) While this suggests the beginning of convergence toward uniformly high levels of access and adoption, there is still a substantial distance to go, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods and most rural communities, to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the opportunities created by recent advances in computing and communications technology.
CEA’s analysis finds a strong positive association between median income and Internet use. In principle, higher income might lead to more Internet use, or vice versa. However, the fact that nearly all Americans have access to basic Internet service strongly suggests that income disparities are the dominant factor in explaining this relationship. (2) CED offered this explanation: Internet access is costly, and those with more income are more likely to be able to afford it. However, factors like age and income may also be correlated with the non-monetary costs and benefits that an individual or a household derives from Internet use. Moreover, if demographically similar households tend to locate close together, correlations between household demographics and Internet adoption may reflect shared variation in costs and prices. Delving into National Broadband Map data more closely, CEA finds that there is substantial within-city variation in Internet adoption, and this variation is strongly correlated with household income.
When it comes to broadband, CEA finds near universal access in the U.S. to Internet connections with an advertised download speed of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps). However, using the Federal Communications Commission’s updated definition of broadband – 25 Mbps – there is a substantial gap between urban and rural communities, as well as between the wealthiest and the least affluent areas.
The findings fit with what Pew Research Center’s Lee Rainie has seen as well. "Rural areas are less likely to have broadband access, but generally if you’re looking at non-adoption, socioeconomic factors are more determinative than geography," he says. "Income and education are highly correlated with Internet use." Sometimes it’s simply a matter of not being able to afford Internet service, Rainie says. Often too, Rainie says, it’s a general unfamiliarity with technology.
Appearing at a school in Durant, Oklahoma, in the heart of the Choctaw Nation, where 32 percent of children live in poverty, President Obama said it is unacceptable for young people not to have access to the same technological resources in their homes that their wealthier counterparts do. Among them could be “the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Bill Gates,” he said. “If we don’t get these young people the access to what they need to achieve their potential, then it’s our loss; it’s not just their loss.”
ConnectHome is an extension of the president’s ConnectED initiative, which was announced in 2013. It aims to link 99 percent of the students from kindergarten through 12th grade to high-speed Internet in classrooms and libraries. HUD’s ConnectHome program will offer low-cost broadband connections (even including free Google Fiber access in some markets) to low-income families in 27 communities across the country. (3) HUD selected the communities through a competitive process that took into account local commitment to expanding broadband opportunities; presence of place-based programs; and other factors to ensure all are well-positioned to deliver on ConnectHome. Mayors from Boston to Durham, and from Washington, DC to Seattle, have committed to reallocate local funds, leverage local programming, and use regulatory tools to support this initiative and the expansion of broadband access in low-income communities. It's estimated that ConnectHome will reach more than 275,000 low-income families and 200,000 school-aged children.
- Begin a rulemaking that requires HUD-funded new residential construction and substantial rehabilitation projects to support broadband Internet connectivity.
- Provide communities with the flexibility to spend portions of their Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grants on local broadband initiatives and associated connectivity enhancements, including approximately $150 million dedicated to the current competition.
- Begin rulemaking to include broadband planning as a component of the Consolidated Planning process, which serves as a framework for a community-wide dialogue to identify housing and municipal development priorities.
- Supply guidance and share best practices with HUD-funded grantees on how to more effectively utilize HUD funding to support broadband connectivity.
- Integrate digital literacy programming and access to technology into related initiatives.
Helping deliver affordable connectivity will be eight nationwide ISPs. (4) They are partnering with mayors, public housing authorities, non-profit groups, and for-profit entities to bridge the gap in digital access for students living in assisted housing units. For example:
- In Google Fiber markets (including the ConnectHome cities of Atlanta, Durham, Kansas City, and Nashville), Google Fiber will offer free home Internet service to residents in select public housing authority properties and will partner with community organizations on computer labs and digital literacy programming to bridge the digital divide, especially for families with K-12 students.
- In select communities of the Choctaw Tribal Nation, Cherokee Communications, Pine Telephone, Suddenlink Communications, and Vyve Broadband will work together to ensure that over 425 of Choctaw’s public housing residents have access to low-cost, high-speed internet.
- In Seattle, and across its coverage footprint, CenturyLink will make broadband service available to HUD households, via its Internet Basics program, for $9.95 per month for the first year and $14.95 per month for the next four years.
- In Macon, Meriden, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, Cox Communications will offer home Internet service for $9.95 per month to eligible K-12 families residing in public housing authorities. As part of its existing ConnectED commitment, Sprint will work with HUD and the ConnectHome program to make its free wireless broadband Internet access service program available to eligible K-12 students living in public housing. This builds upon the free mobile broadband service previously committed to low-income students by AT&T and Verizon, for ConnectED.
HUD is collaborating with non-profits and the private sector to offer new technical training and digital literacy programs for residents in assisted housing units.
- Best Buy will offer HUD residents in select ConnectHome demonstration project cities, including the Choctaw Tribal Nation, the computer training and technical support needed to maximize the academic and economic impact of broadband access. Best Buy will also offer afterschool technical training, for free, to students participating in ConnectHome at Best Buy Teen Centers in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, DC.
- The James M. Cox Foundation, a Cox Communications-affiliated Foundation, will make 1,500 discounted tablets, pre-loaded with educational software, available for $30 to students and their families participating in ConnectHome, in Macon.
- GitHub will provide $250,000 to support devices and digital literacy training to HUD residents in ConnectHome cities.
- College Board, in partnership with Khan Academy, will offer students and families in HUD housing in all ConnectHome communities free, online SAT practice resources, and contribute $200,000 over three years to fund digital literacy and personalized college readiness and planning training in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, Washington, DC and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
- 80/20 Foundation will provide $100,000 to fund digital literacy training in San Antonio.
- Age of Learning, Inc. will make its ABCmouse.com online early learning curriculum available, for free, to families living in HUD housing in ConnectHome communities.
- The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will produce and distribute new educational, children’s, and digital literacy content via participating local PBS stations tailored for ConnectHome participants.
- The American Library Association will lead a collaboration with local libraries in all the ConnectHome communities to deliver tailored, on-site digital literacy programming and resources to public housing residents.
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America will provide digital literacy training for HUD residents in ConnectHome communities that have a Boys & Girls Club, including in Durant, OK, part of the Choctaw Tribal Nation.
- Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Durant Independent School District will provide digital literacy courses, for free, to HUD residents in the Choctaw Tribal Nation.
Praise for ConnectHome
The reaction for ConnectHome has been positive.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “I applaud the announcement of the ConnectHome initiative, which promises to help get some of the most disconnected Americans and their kids online. Today approximately 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires Internet access. Kids may be connected in the classroom, but if they are disconnected at home, getting basic schoolwork done is hard. This Homework Gap is the cruelest part of our new digital divide. We need to bridge this gap and fix this problem because our shared economic future depends on it. The ConnectHome initiative is a step in the right direction.”
“President Obama’s ConnectHome announcement is another step in the right direction to extend broadband to low-income Americans,” said Kristine DeBry, a Vice President at Public Knowledge. “In addition, the CEA statistics are another piece of evidence for the need to increase broadband availability by updating the FCC’s Lifeline program to help low-income subscribers lower the cost of broadband.”
“Taken together, ConnectHome and Lifeline have the potential to finally make a serious dent in the digital divide,” said Michael Scurato, Policy Director at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "Both efforts are crucial and, when combined with other actions by the FCC, President Obama and executive branch agencies, indicate the type of new and bold thinking, partnerships and coordination across all levels of government that are needed to solve the digital divide."
Getting everyone online in the U.S. will be a matter of affordability and education, says Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now. Increasing competition among service providers could help lower costs, he says, and extending the FCC Lifeline phone subsidy to cover broadband would put Internet access within reach of more people. (We're tracking the FCC's Lifeline reform efforts.) The FCC's efforts to expand Internet access at schools and libraries could also show more people how to get online and why doing so is useful.
"The most successful programs we hear about not only provide access but provide teaching and mentoring and tech support," says Pew’s Rainie. "You need a whole web of support."
- Since 2001, the digital divide has narrowed. During that period, the largest increases in Internet adoption occurred for the demographic groups with the lowest initial adoption rate. For example, between 2001 and 2013, home Internet use has increased by 30.3 percentage points among black households, compared to 21.4 percent among white households. Similarly, Internet use grew by 26.3 percentage points among those without a High School education compared to 14.8 percentage points for those with a bachelor’s degree.
- There are other factors. In the 2013 ACS, less than half of households headed by someone who did not graduate high school had a home Internet connection, compared to over 90 percent of households headed by a college graduate. Black and Hispanic households are also 16 and 11 percentage points less likely to have an Internet connection than white households, respectively, while Native American households trail white ones by 19 percentage points.
- Albany, GA; Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge, LA; Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Choctaw Nation, OK; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Fresno, CA; Kansas City, MO; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; Macon, GA; Memphis, TN; Meriden, CT; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; Tampa, FL; and Washington, DC.
- Google Fiber, Cherokee Communications, Pine Telephone, Suddenlink Communications, Vyve Broadband, CenturyLink, Cox Communications and Sprint.