California may be the epicenter of the global Internet economy, but millions of Californians still find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, lacking access to a home broadband connection and the opportunities that come with it. Left unchecked, this divide will continue to drive educational disparities that will weigh on our economy for decades to come.
But some initiatives aimed at closing this gap – including one by a major Internet provider – have made significant strides and revealed important lessons about how to close the digital divide. The Obama administration also recently announced a new pilot program, ConnectHome, that hopes to build on these lessons.
Not too long ago, a home broadband connection was considered a luxury. That’s no longer the case, particularly for households with children in school or adults in the job market.
In a recent study by John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of the low-income families surveyed reported that their children’s schools expected students to have Internet access at home. Nearly two-thirds of these families also reported that an Internet connection was a necessity when looking for a new job. Yet among California families at or below the poverty line, barely half have broadband at home.
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Solving this problem is especially important to the Latino community.
Nationally, Latino households are 21 percent less likely than white households to have home Internet access. The gap is widest among Spanish-speaking and immigrant households. Here in California, less than half of Spanish-speaking households are connected, and Californians born outside the U.S. are significantly less likely to have broadband at home than their U.S.-born neighbors.
The unconnected are in the back of the digital bus – and it’s a crisis that civil rights leaders and policy makers must address. Students whose Internet access is limited to public library visits will find it harder to succeed in school, while unconnected adults will have fewer job opportunities, less access to government services, and a harder time sharing experiences with their family and loved ones.
Horrigan’s research shows that programs like Internet Essentials – a relatively new program initiated by Comcast with the support of the FCC – are a game changer. What’s most unique about the approach – and most instructional for those initiating their own “digital bridge” initiatives – is its multipronged approach.
Internet Essentials offers a heavily discounted $9.95 monthly broadband subscription, a free Wi-Fi router, and an optional personal computer for less than $150 to families with kids eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
Launched in 2011, Internet Essentials has now connected more than 250,000 low-income Californians since launch. Nationwide, more than 2 million individuals have benefited from the program.
And while the term “game changer” may be overused, access to the broadband Internet under this program has unquestionably changed lives: 92 percent of participants say that their kids’ grades improved as a result of gaining Internet access at home; 86 percent report using their new connection almost every day, and more than half have used it to help find a new job.
What Internet Essentials has taught us is that to crack the code on the digital divide, you have to attack the problem comprehensively. Cost is only part of the challenge. Most of those without broadband access don’t see the Internet’s relevance to their lives or are intimidated by their lack of digital literacy.
So Internet Essentials complements its heavily discounted service and hardware offering with extensive digital literacy training, and then engages key community organizations to evangelize the program’s – and the broader Internet’s – importance. To date, 600 community organizations and school districts across California have partnered with the program to offer free online and in-person training.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now following a similar model as it rolls out the ConnectHome initiative in 28 pilot markets, including Los Angeles and Fresno. By partnering with private broadband providers and community-based training organizations, ConnectHome hopes to connect 275,000 additional low-income households.
We currently face impasse on so many public policy debates because of ideological rigidity, budget constraints and systemic inertia in politics. But these two initiatives – one from a leading company and one from the White House – show that real progress is still possible when private and public-sector leaders have the will to seek innovative solutions to real problems.
It’s time now for others to step up to the plate and follow the lead.
Hector V. Barreto is chairman of The Latino Coalition and served five years as the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.