Giving Everyone a Chance with Broadband

Technology professionals and policy makers convened November 5 at Washington Post Live’s Bridging the Digital Divide forum to discuss why the digital gap matters and who is still left out. On Nov 13, the Post published excerpts of the discussion and we use that as a jumping off point for another look at who’s using the Internet and who isn’t. Well over 90 percent of households in the United States now have access to high-speed broadband, but, according to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 72.9 percent of homes used broadband Internet service. That’s remarkable growth from 2000, when only 4 percent of homes used broadband, but it still indicates a significant gap.

Andrea Peterson wrote in the Post this week:

About 15 percent of Americans older than 18 don’t use the Internet, according to a study released in September by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. An additional 9 percent use it only outside the home. They make up a shrinking, but not insignificant, segment of the population. And the gap between them and our increasingly digitized society is growing wider every day.

Who are the people who remain unconnected? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project: (1)

  • 49 percent of non-Internet users are older than 65
  • 41 percent of adults without a high school diploma are offline
  • Nearly a quarter of adults in households making less than $30,000 per year don’t use the Internet
  • Although 79 percent of whites surveyed by Pew used the Internet at home, 70 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Hispanics do so (2)
  • Urban and suburban Americans are more likely than rural residents to be online at home
  • Only 14% of offline adults were previous Internet users

Why do they remain unconnected?

  • 34 percent of offline respondents say that the Internet is not relevant to them
  • 32 percent cited problems with using the technology -- They say that getting online is difficult or frustrating, or that they are worried about issues such as privacy or hackers
  • 19 percent have concerns about the expense of owning a computer or paying for an Internet connection

But what are the offline missing out on? “Americans who don’t have access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, educational resources, health-care information, social networks, even government services,” Lawrence E. Strickling, head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told the Washington Post forum. NTIA statistics show that 73 percent of unemployed Internet users reported going online to look for work.

People who aren’t online have a harder time accessing vital services such as Medicare and Medicaid. They can’t perform useful daily functions that most Americans take for granted, such as looking up directions when traveling, using e-mail for speedy written correspondence, or being able to see and talk with faraway friends or relatives via Skype or FaceTime. They can’t easily search for competitive prices for housing, cars, appliances or other goods.

Interestingly enough, one of the preeminent researchers in broadband deployment, John Horrigan, recently suggested we all stop calling this gap the “digital divide.” He argues that the issue is less about access to hardware and more about the skills to use it. “Fewer people are not online than a half dozen years ago,” Horrigan said. “That doesn’t mean efforts to bring the ‘not online’ into the columns of Internet users should stop. But focusing on the ‘online/not online’ issue as the main digital equity problem obscures a larger and looming one -- differences in levels of digital skills for the online and offline population.” Horrigan prefers the term “digital readiness.” “The emerging challenge is about who’s ready and not ready to be online,” Horrigan said. “We need to build a user’s digital skills and trust, and we must cultivate ‘digital readiness’ and capacity for all users to go online.”

“’Digital Readiness’ refers to helping people to acquire skills to use online applications that are going to become more consequential (e.g., telemedicine, education) but also (with the advent of the ‘Internet of things’) more daunting for some people,” Horrigan said. “Higher levels of Digital Readiness can accelerate the uptake of new application.”

But California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval disagreed with Horrigan’s advocacy of retiring the phrase “digital divide” and focusing less on access and more on adoption strategies. She said Horrigan apparently had not been to far Northern California or the Eastern Sierra areas. “There, the issue is very much an access issue,” Sandoval said, noting middle mile access is lacking in these northern areas.

And it is not just households and individuals that lack access. An estimated 72 percent of public schools lack the broadband speeds necessary to fully access the Internet, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization that wants to improve digital access in schools.(3) Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is considering updating the federal government’s largest education technology program, the E-Rate, to meet a new goal set by President Barack Obama: connect 99 percent of America’s students to the digital age through next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries within the next 5 years. The President’s plan, called ConnectED, also calls for the Department of Education to train teachers in the best ways to use technology in classroom instruction, an area that many agree is weak.

Supporters of the E-rate program say it has been pivotal in bringing schools into the technology age. When it began, only 14 percent of schools had Internet access. Today, that figure is 99 percent, according to the Obama Administration. But as the use of technology has exploded in American society, the technology available in schools has not kept pace. The proliferation of devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — and education applications that require high-speed connections has put a serious strain on the E-rate program.

High-capacity broadband has become all the more important for schools because of the coming Common Core academic standards in reading and math for grades K-12, which 45 states and the District of Columbia are implementing. As part of the Common Core, states are expected to get rid of pencil-and-paper standardized tests and administer online exams starting in the 2014-15 school year. Not only will schools require enough computers to administer the tests, but they’ll need adequate broadband capacity, too.

Some experts say the federal government should consider a one-time investment to bring adequate broadband capacity to all schools. That could cost about $11 billion, said John Harrington, the chief executive of Funds for Learning, a consulting firm that helps schools and libraries apply for E-rate money. He thinks the government also should increase the budget for the E-rate program.

Evan Marwell, the chief executive of EducationSuperHighway, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week. He argues that high-speed “broadband is an educational equalizer and a learning accelerator. But today, 40 million of the nation’s K-12 students are being left behind without the Internet access and Wi-Fi they will need to succeed in the global economy.” He continues, “Experts agree that to enable students to take full advantage of digital learning, schools need 100 megabits (Mbps) or more of Internet access today and one gigabit (Gbps) by 2017. Without these speeds, schools can’t leverage the power of video to let kids learn at their own pace or provide teachers with the assessment data necessary to understand the needs of each child.”

The answer Marwell points to is fiber optics. “Fiber is the only technology that can deliver gigabit speeds to schools and scale to meet their growing bandwidth needs for a generation. And fiber doesn’t just mean blazing-fast education speeds. By investing in fiber today, schools and libraries can dramatically lower their annual bandwidth costs. Fiber is faster, cheaper and future-proof.” Fiber is also cheaper: the median school without fiber pays more than $100 per month for a megabit of bandwidth while those with fiber can pay as little as $1 per megabit.

Marwell’s recommendations to the FCC:

  • Redirect E-rate money to broadband (and away from traditional telephone service)
  • Supplement savings with a modest one-time investment fund
  • Increase transparency in the E-rate program to ensure the biggest bang for every buck
  • Encourage schools to lower costs by leasing unused fiber from carriers or building school-owned fiber

There’s also debate on whether the E-rate should support connecting students to the Internet outside of school. The FCC asked for input on the possibility of expanding the program's rules to cover broadband access in homes and other out-of-school environments through wireless hotspots and other tools.

"Students who are without broadband access at home, disproportionately low-income students, are placed at a significant disadvantage relative to students with at-home broadband access," McGraw-Hill Education told the FCC. "The commission can take a major step to narrow the digital gap for low-income families and students by permitting schools to provide wireless hotspots to surrounding communities using E-rate-supported broadband." But to critics of the idea, including telecom company Verizon, expanding E-rate funding to include wireless community hotspots would be a mistake, saying it will be too expensive.

My colleague, Amina Fazlullah, has been writing about E-rate reform all week. She’s looked at overall funding, how to prioritize funding, pricing transparency, and the need for short-term capital investment in infrastructure. (She’s be writing more about the E-rate next week, I’m sure). Her bottom line: By providing ubiquitous highspeed broadband to our schools and libraries, we can help ensure that no matter who you are, in which zip code you were born, the color of your skin, or the income of your parents, every child can take advantage of high speed learning, and every child has a chance to succeed.

Here’s how Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council, summed it up at the Washington Post Bridging the Digital Divide forum:

“This same technology, this same access to broadband, this same capacity of people to have individualized learning devices connected to the Internet in their school -- which is probably feeding disadvantage, increasing disparity, increasing inequality -- can so easily, if we’re being committed, be something that increases equality, that gives more kids in lower-income neighborhoods the chance to soar because they can be at the same desk, with the same learning tablet, with the same content as kids in the most upper-middle-class neighborhoods. So shame on us -- really, shame on us if we let the wonders of educational technology and broadband lead to more inequality as opposed to less -- as opposed to more opportunity, more leveling of giving everybody a chance. That is a great challenge.”

Learning to use the Internet isn’t going to solve everybody’s economic and social problems, cautions Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “It’s both powerful and complex; it’s not like the magic wand of the Internet fairy comes and you’re instantly transformed.” But she says that access and skills can have tremendously positive outcomes for former non-users when “learning how to apply for a job, how to create résumés, how to search for prospective employers . . . and reaching out to family members and friends in faraway places, which I think is a very important aspect of feeling connected to their communities.”

At Benton, we’ll continue to track the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology, and those with very limited or no access at all – and the efforts to bring broadband to every corner of the U.S. And, as we do, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

1.) Earlier this month, Gallup released results of a poll with similar findings. See “Older Americans' Internet Use Up vs. 2002, but Still Lags
2.) Pew reports that relatively fast and inexpensive devices, which provide Internet connection via cellphone networks, have had a particularly positive effect on African American and Latino communities.
3.) Jim Kohlenberger, who serves on the Benton Foundation Board of Directors, also works closely with EducationSuperHighway.

By Kevin Taglang.