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Feds, companies work to close digital divide

According to the survey, cost is holding people back from broadband internet adoption.

According to a recent residential broadband survey, 35 percent of all Americans and 17 million U.S. children live without access to broadband service—and while these statistics are alarming, more companies are pledging assistance and support in an effort to reduce the digital divide.

Consumer Broadband Adoption Trends, the survey from high-speed internet access advocacy group Connected Nation, also showed that out of the 17 million U.S. children without broadband, 7.6 million of these are in low-income households.

Lack of at-home broadband internet services means no Google, no Wikipedia, no finishing homework assignments, no personalized learning, no Facebooking with friends, and no checking eMails for many Americans. It also means no equity, and therefore, lowers chances of graduating high school and finding a job. It also slows economic recovery, job growth, and social development.

It’s what Connected Nation is calling the “Internet Underclass”—“an impoverished and disconnected population with fewer educational and employment opportunities.”

“The broadband adoption gap affects us all—it affects the economic future of our communities, it affects the education of our children, and it affects the economy’s potential for job growth,” said Tom Koutsky, chief policy counsel for Connected Nation, in a statement. “But there are no simple solutions to what is a multifaceted problem. Our state-based research into the demographic, economic, and digital skill barriers to adoption is a crucial first step that will help government and communities tailor and target effective broadband adoption solutions.”

Only 46 percent of low-income households with children have broadband internet services, compared to 66 percent of all households. That 46 percent drops to 37 percent when it’s a low-income minority household.

Forty percent of low-income households also don’t have a computer, compared to only 9 percent of all other households.

“As we enter the country’s poorer areas, the adoption gap grows sharply,” explained Brian Mefford, Connected Nation’s CEO. “Hardest hit are low-income schoolchildren, because fewer opportunities to use broadband means fewer opportunities to learn, to interact, and to develop the skills necessary to participate in today’s economy. Closing these gaps is key to our nation’s economic future.”

According to the survey, cost is holding people back from adopting broadband internet services—18 percent of all Americans say expensive fees are the main reason for not subscribing, and that number jumps to 43 percent in low-income households with children.

Lack of digital skills is also a factor for 14 percent of low-income households with children, and 19 percent of all U.S. households.

This is an interesting development, the report states. In 2005, the survey found that the most significant barrier to broadband adoption was relevance—many consumers “simply did not feel they needed broadband or were satisfied with their current dial-up service. Broadband and computer cost concerns were present, but were not as preeminent.”

However, the 2011 survey reveals that as adoption has grown and as the U.S. economy struggles, cost concerns are increasing in importance. Also, as broadband has grown and become integrated into daily life, and as consumers become more tech-savvy, the reasons given for not adopting have become more diverse.

Help’s on the way

Private and public companies and organizations are making a concerted effort to bridge the digital divide.

Comcast recently began rolling out its Internet Essentials program, which offers a low-priced bundle of a computer and $9.95-per-month broadband service to households with children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Connected Nation says its survey findings could help policy makers determine which populations might be more responsive to adoption programs focused on cost (like Internet Essentials) or programs focused on digital literacy and skill development, such as Connected Nation’s Every Citizen Online program in Ohio.

Another major effort comes from Microsoft. The initiative, announced at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in September, is a three-year program to help ensure that 1 million students from low-income families in the United States receive the benefits of software, hardware, and discounted broadband service.

The program is part of Microsoft’s global Shape the Future Program, which has provided technology and access to more than 10 million students around the world over the past five years.

The program will bring together Microsoft staff and state and city nonprofit and private organizations, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, and One Economy.

These partnerships will develop and “accelerate reduced-cost programs and policies that will include the following: Windows-based PCs optimized for students, broadband access, Microsoft education software, and job skills training,” said Microsoft in a statement.

Microsoft said it launched the program in part because of the lower graduations rates of students without access to broadband service.

“The impact is significant,” said a company statement. “The resulting lost earning potential to the country is $825 billion, lost tax revenues are $123 billion, and social program inefficiencies top $125 billion. According to a recent study (the Arnold Group 2011), the cumulative impact of digital exclusion for these students to the U.S. economy is $32 billion every year, and over the working lifetime of these students, it’s over $1.2 trillion.”

“Roughly 100 million Americans remain unconnected to high-speed internet, and the economic cost of digital exclusion is rising every day,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement. “This isn’t a problem for government alone. The private sector, nonprofit groups, and government actors must work collaboratively to close this gap, create jobs, and ensure America’s global competitiveness.”

Charlotte, N.C., (through Project L.I.F.T.) and Seattle (through the Great Student Initiative) are among the first cities supporting Shape the Future, said Microsoft, and they will be launching digital inclusion initiatives for students in their communities.

Over a three-year period, all 50 states plus Guam and Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to participate.

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