Darriale Bradley and her family spent many nights in the parking lot of fast food restaurants, but not because of the food. It was for the wi-fi. For Darriale, sitting in the parking lot was the only way she could do her online homework since she didn’t have a home internet connection. No child should have to go to such lengths just to do homework, and every child should have easy and affordable access to the Internet and the opportunity that access brings. Yet, sadly, Darriale is far from alone.
The digital divide is a reality for three out of four American families, meaning approximately eight million individuals under the age of 18 are living without internet access. According to Pew Research, 79 percent of surveyed middle and high school teachers report allowing students to access homework online with 76 percent allowing students to submit assignments online. However, only 18 percent of teachers reported the majority of students have access to the digital tools they need at home, which left those students without access to broadband at a significant disadvantage.
So, where does this leave these students and their families? In short, without an Internet connection you are both economically and educationally marginalized. Luckily, this can be solved and we, at EveryoneOn, with the help of partners, are working to help families connect to the digital world.
In our work, we hear a common refrain from parents: “We know we need internet access, but we can’t afford it.” In addition, there is a lack of awareness about available discounted services and the qualification process for low-cost internet options is often long and cumbersome.
Progress against a problem as big as the digital divide demands bold, collaborative action from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds to address issues of affordability, access, equipment, and inclusive enrollment systems.
The good news? This kind of bold, collaborative work required already is happening and connecting families daily. EveryoneOn is a national nonprofit working with more than a dozen high-speed internet providers and other organizations to provide high-speed, low-cost internet, computers, and free digital literacy training for all unconnected U.S. residents.
One such opportunity for discounted internet service is available through a program called Connect2Compete, a flagship partnership that offers $10 per month at-home service to families with K-12 students that qualify for free and reduced school lunch program.
And, some of these internet partners are going even further in expanding eligibility and access to affordable connections. Cox Communications is one example. They were the first company to roll-out the Connect2Compete program, piloting the initiative for the FCC in San Diego, then rolling out the program nationally in 2013. The Cox offer extends Connect2Compete discounts to families with children in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), National School Lunch Program (NSLP), as well as to families with K-12 students living in HUD-assisted housing as part of the national ConnectHome initiative launched by President Obama in July 2015.
Leadership among internet service providers is critical and makes all the difference to the sustainable success of these programs. In addition to broadening eligibility requirements, Cox is committing time and resources to engage local city leadership, community nonprofits, and public housing authorities to help ensure Connect2Compete and ConnectHome programs succeed in the markets they serve. Because the families we’re trying to reach do not have access at home, information needs to be provided in practical and accessible ways. That means going the extra mile to place information in bus stops, community centers — and sometimes literally placing flyers at the doorstep of public housing authority developments and hiring “street teams” to answer simple questions about how to sign up for service. The most effective supporters of Connect2Compete and ConnectHome have staff members who reach out to local families and are accountable to meeting measurable goals.
Cox sets a good example of what needs to be done by the highest levels of corporate leadership. As a starting point, other companies must recognize the connection between digital inclusion and business success. Bridging this divide expands the customer base for their services and the rest of the digital economy. Second, organizations must make signing up for discounted offers like Connect2Compete as easy and open as possible. Third, companies need to devote the necessary human resources to meet families where they are and get as many families signed up is possible.
These efforts get real results. More than half of the families who have enrolled in the Connect2Compete program have seen improved grades for their children. The benefits extend beyond schoolwork, as adults also can go online to find and apply for jobs (more than 90 percent of recruiters use or plan to use social media to find potential employees). Digital literacy also will improve their likelihood of securing a job offer, as 50 percent of today’s jobs require technology skills.
Undoubtedly, an ISP’s commitment to go beyond simply providing a discount makes an even greater impact.
No student should have to spend time doing homework in parking lot of a fast food restaurant. Affordable home access is a key component of achieving success in today’s digital world. And, working together will help create these connections to the internet and the American Dream that all families deserve.