How many Americans lack access to high-speed internet service? Is it 6 million, 19 million, or 35 million? Hint: The answer is slightly more than the combined populations of the five most populated cities in the United States—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia. (The answer's tucked below.)This past Monday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hosted a “lessons learned” (idea sharing) webinar to relate the successful strategies of the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and to provide a broadband adoption toolkit for local governments interested in emulating the case studies. Established under the 2009 Recovery Act, BTOP was set up to deploy broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas of the United States, enhance broadband capacity at public computer centers, and promote sustainable broadband adoption projects.
It’s an honorable, if daunting, task—some 19 million Americans (6 percent of the population) do not have access to broadband, and 100 million who have access do not subscribe, per this FCC report. In rural areas, 14.5 million people (nearly 25 percent of the population) lack broadband access. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. The report also pointed out that low-income households, disabled people, and older Americans had low broadband adoption rates. Race and education also played a factor, with fewer than 50 percent of blacks, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Hispanics using broadband at home. Lower education levels correlated with lower likelihood of using broadband at home.
What to do? The answer seems simple.
Build it, and they will connect?
Not necessarily (see the 100 million cited above). The objectives and benefits of expanding broadband access and affordability are to improve education, job prospects, economic development, health care, and so on. The technology is not a stand-alone solution; it supports these objectives, and this message must be clear to stakeholders in order to sell the program. That’s a key point to learn from the BTOP grantees, and something I'll expand on in the next blog post.
Bridging the digital divide means not only building the digital infrastructure but also increasing digital literacy among the target population. What good is having the technology if it’s not effectively used or used at all? Getting the infrastructure in place is just one of the steps in broadband expansion and “digital inclusion”—the mission to ensure that all residents, with a focus on disadvantaged populations, are:
- Afforded access to affordable digital technology
- Provided training to develop the skills necessary to optimize their opportunity
- Aware of the benefits of the technology to more fully participate in civic and personal life and to compete in the 21st century
That compete element should pique the interest of local governments. Broadband access and literacy is not just good for overall quality of life, it’s good for the economy. And that should make anyone near a chamber of commerce listen in. From another angle, you could look at digital inclusion as encompassing the goals of access, literacy, and content creation—I'm borrowing this perspective from one of the webinar presenters, David Keyes of the Seattle Community Technology Program.
So the answer is not “Build it and they will come,” it’s “Connect with communities, and they will connect online.” Next week I will look into “lessons learned” on how to bridge the digital divide, and successful examples from local governments that truly show how counties and municipalities can think outside the broadband box.
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