THE historic march on Washington in August reminds us that the mission of the nation’s historic civil-rights movement is a constantly evolving one. And in this gilded information age, the new challenge is no longer a divide between lunch counters and bus seats, but a digital divide between those who have high-speed Internet access and those who do not.
President Obama’s plan to wire 99 percent of U.S. schools is a much-needed part of the solution, but until we get everyone connected at home, the divide will remain. Online homework and wired-study guides won’t do much for students who are marooned offline at home.
Being a part of broadband Internet is no longer optional, especially for communities of color hardest hit by the recent recession. Eighty percent of all U.S. jobs will require digital fluency within the next 10 years. Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept job applications online. College applications, financial aid, class registration and classwork have all moved online.
But today, African-American and Hispanic families lag 10 to 20 percentage points behind whites in broadband adoption.
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Closing the at-home side of this divide is complicated. Most nonadopters say they just don’t see broadband Internet as meaningful or valuable to their lives, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Others lack the digital literacy necessary to navigate the vast troves and possibilities of the Internet. The cost of computers and broadband service can also be an issue.
Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission joined with broadband provider Comcast to initiate the largest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide.
The public-private undertaking, known as Internet Essentials, offers heavily discounted broadband service at $9.95 a month and a fully functioning computer for just $150 to low-income families with a child eligible for the federal school lunch program. At market prices, monthly broadband service would cost at least $47 per month and a computer would cost upward of $200.
More than 89,000 such families in the state of Washington can sign up for the service; 50,000 of them are in the Seattle area. The program also offers to train those participating in the program with state-of-the-art digital skills. And now other companies are starting a similar program called Connect2Compete.
The Internet Essentials program is unique because it virtually eliminates the barriers most often cited for not having broadband Internet at home — demonstrating relevance of broadband Internet access, teaching the skills to use it and overcoming the high cost of service and hardware.
The program has exceeded expectations. Nearly 900,000 Americans have joined the program and started using broadband Internet in their homes. Eighty-six percent of program subscribers use the Internet every single day.
More than half use it for work, three-quarters for email and social networking, two-thirds to access government information and services. It’s a doorway into the modern connected world that many take for granted.
A few outlier critics have emerged and claim that the program hasn’t gone far enough. Others don’t like the idea of public-private partnerships, no matter how much good they deliver.
But these empty naysayers are much like the critics of the Affordable Care Act: squeaky wheels looking for attention, offering ephemeral criticisms and, worse, offering no solution of their own.
We need every idea on the table to solve this problem. That means celebrating and scaling up what works and finding new ways to make the Internet more compelling to those who see it as irrelevant today.
It’s going to take a village of these kinds of creative public-private partnerships to salve the divide. The digital divide took years of neglect to open so wide. It will take years of hard work to close.
Hilary Shelton is director of the Washington, D.C., NAACP bureau and senior vice president for advocacy.