In 1995, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration deemed those without access to the Internet “information have-nots.”
Twenty years later, technology is part of our everyday lives, and the Internet is critical to how we work, learn, and connect to one another. Nearly every American now has access but we are a separated society. According to the Pew Research Center, almost two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone and 19 percent rely on it for their only access to the Internet. About 5 million households with school-age children don’t have high-speed broadband.
Affluent urban and suburban regions of the country can take advantage of the fastest connections available while the rest of the population, particularly those living in low-income housing and in rural areas, still depends on slower service, cellphone data plans and public WiFi spots to stay connected. President Obama announced a new initiative over the summer to provide broadband to underserved communities. “The Internet is not a luxury,” he said. “It’s a necessity.”
On Oct. 8, The Washington Post held a live journalism event called Bridging the Digital Divide, where speakers examined obstacles to adoption and highlighted efforts nationwide to expand access to high-quality connection and improve digital literacy. Excerpts from the conversations are below. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel went so far as to say that computer coding should be a national high school graduation requirement.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro described public housing as a powerful platform for greater opportunity, including closing the digital divide. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told us that digital inclusivity needs to be baked into a city’s DNA to ensure that economic prosperity is distributed.
We learned that some Americans are still trying to understand the relevance of the Internet. They are among the 15 percent of adults who aren’t online. Maybe they aren’t dating, shopping or applying for a job online, “but there are things that we cannot do because a large portion of our population is not on the Internet,” said Cliff Missen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Homework, health care and civic engagement are now all intimately connected to the Internet.
The Internet has brought us closer together except for those who are on the sidelines, willingly or not. They risk being left behind in school, work and their communities. As technology continues to evolve, the digital divide is likely to do so as well. It’s up to our cities, states, Washington and corporate stakeholders to make sure the gap only gets smaller.
Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
We’re living in a 21st-century global economy, and if we’re truly going to prosper in the United States, we need to make sure that everyone has 21st-century tools. . . . More than half of low-income households don’t have an Internet connection right now. We see it as key to economic mobility, key to educational achievement.
ConnectHome is the White House and HUD’s effort to connect folks in 28 communities who live in public housing to the Internet. The first thing that I thought about [when I took on this role] was how we could use housing as a powerful platform for greater opportunity, particularly for young people who live in public and HUD-assisted housing . . . I really see public housing as a powerful organizing force. . . . I really feel like it’s not enough just to connect somebody to the Internet — you have to layer that with greater educational efforts.
We also see it fundamentally as a kind of public utility. In the same way that you have electricity or you have water, the Internet is this important to being able to function in the 21st-century global economy.
Mayor of Chicago
IPads don’t replace teachers. They help you on individual learning . . .but technology doesn’t replace a really great, motivating teacher. Never will. Can they supplement? Can they support? Yes. Can they replace? Not a chance.
It’s one thing to get a computer in a room. It’s one thing to get connectivity. But if you don’t have the classes and the skill development to go with that, it’s a piece of furniture that in about a year will be outdated.
I appreciate the passion [about digital issues and technology]. We’re trying to pursue this in the city in fits and starts. Some things we’re doing well, some we’re not, but don’t think that is the end. It is a means toward a larger goal, where everybody then has a capacity to participate in an economy and a society where technology plays a central role, but it is not the role.
Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission
Everybody who has a phone bill has a line item on there that says “universal service fee.” That money goes into a pot administered by the FCC known as the universal service fund. Historically, that money has been distributed to rural telephone companies for the purpose of delivering voice service. It strikes me that in the 21st century, what rural Americans want, just as every American really wants, is standalone broadband service. They might be interested in voice service as an application that rides over the broadband network, but broadband is really the service they’re after.
Unfortunately, the way our universal service fund is structured, we provide subsidies to carriers if they supply voice service but not for standalone broadband service. My proposal would be to modernize these rules, to recognize that rural Americans deserve a standalone broadband option and to give subsidies to companies that want to provide standalone broadband.
If you build these fat broadband pipes that allow this super-high-speed connectivity, the applications that ride over that network are going to advance to meet that demand. I’m not sure what the trajectory is, but I can tell you that all these innovative entrepreneurs, including in rural America, are going to find innovative ways to fill those pipes.
Mayor of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s overnight success story took 30 years. . . . From a city that was built on steel and aluminum and iron and glass, we now are a city that has Microsoft and Intel and Google and Uber and Disney and Bosch and Tata. Companies from around the world [are] looking to create global innovation centers within the city. . . . Pittsburgh is going to progress in a way that the economy will continue to grow except for those that are not a part of it. Those that aren’t a part of it account for almost 30 percent of the population. There’s no ladder of opportunity to help them become a part of the new economy like there was when my grandfather, who came from Italy with a second-grade education, was able to work in a mill and become part of the middle class.
Everything that we do, in what we plan in building cities, has to have it baked into its DNA that inclusivity is a key component of what we’re doing. Right now, that’s not happening. That’s why we see this vast divide between the haves and the have-nots. . . If we don’t start being proactive about it, it will only get greater.
Mayor of San Antonio
Digital inclusion is really high on my list of priorities as a mayor who has been focused on connecting more of our citizens to opportunity. We have a really strong economy in San Antonio but there are many people who aren’t prepared for the jobs that are being created every day.
Just because someone has a smartphone doesn’t mean that they know how to fully utilize it in order to be able to connect to all the opportunities that technology affords us. We really have to focus on how we can level that playing field and provide people the training so that they can fully utilize it.
Counsel to the mayor, City of New York
I actually don’t think we have an achievement gap. I think what we have is an opportunity gap, and the digital divide is a primary example of that because it’s not that our kids can’t learn and can’t get jobs. It’s that they are not getting the same access to fundamental infrastructure that creates those opportunities. . . . When you think about families that are struggling just to make the rent at the end of the month, or buy groceries each week, the cost of high-speed Internet access at home becomes a luxury, when, in fact, it’s an economic, educational and social necessity.
Director of adult education services, New York Public Library
We have after-hours students and adults, sitting on our stoops trying to catch the bleed from inside of our buildings to complete homework, or connect with family members, or find out necessary information. It just can’t be that we’re requiring a huge portion of our citizenry to pick up the digital crumbs. Not if we want to take advantage of all of the great innovations that technology has to offer.
Executive director, CEA Foundation
What’s interesting when we work with the blind and low-vision community is many of these devices all of a sudden [allow] access to the world around you as the environment around you. There are apps online now that if you’re in a hotel and want to know, “Is this the shampoo bottle or the conditioner bottle?” [they] can help you identify those things. They seem like minor things but they really do open up the world to you by having access to this information. When you start looking at accessibility in the workplace and other places, a lot of these technologies can really open up the world.
One of the groups we work with does a virtual senior center that enables homebound people to get out of their apartments virtually using essentially a kind of Skype or Google hangout-type interaction. They’re able to take classes, tour the world, right from their home. That has an amazing impact on people’s life quality.
Executive director, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)
We live in an age-segregated society. People that are older have been bombarded with messages that technology is for young people and that, in fact, a lot of things that are going on out there are not directed toward their interests and they don’t feel as welcome as they should be.
When an older person wants to learn the technology, they’ve been waiting on the sidelines for so long that they’re worried that the first question they have to ask might not be a very good one. People start to feel that you’re coming from a position of authority and experience and leadership in the family, your social network. But then, when you’re going online for the first time, it’s as if you’re completely ignorant. You’re taking a lot of social risk. What we do at OATS is work with creating small group environments with older people in classes that are designed to be maximally relevant to somebody who’s over 60.
We find that once people learn the basics, they really take off and begin exhibiting the same characteristics online as the rest of the population. But that on-ramping process, particularly for older people, is really critical.
Director, WiderNet@UNC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
We don’t lack technology solutions. We’ve got plenty of technology out there and more things are being developed every day. In the case of people with a disability, they’re disproportionately unemployed or underemployed and they can’t afford a lot of these solutions. I think what we’re really missing is a community commitment – a social contract – that says everybody should be connected and should have the devices that they need.
The countries where — and there’s a couple dozen of them – where people are better connected than we are here in the U.S. — they have made that social commitment.
Regional director, Rental Property Services, Housing Authority of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
We face a lot of barriers [at Choctaw Nation rental sites]. We have no infrastructure to a lot of our sites. When we say “rural,” we mean remote.
Eighty-five percent of our tenants have smartphones, and less than 20 percent have [tablet and computer] devices. A lot of the schools are going paperless and a lot of the kids do their homework on their parents’ smartphones, and you know how hard that is. We are trying to partner with our tribal I.T . . . so that these people complete their digital-literacy training. They get a device and we get them connected. They can apply for jobs. They can continue their education.
Executive vice president and chief operating officer, EPB
Chattanooga [Tenn.] has seen a lot of innovation [and] growth. We’ve seen venture capitalists grow, entrepreneur activity grow, tech companies move to Chattanooga, and larger businesses say that what will happen with our smart grid and with our communications is part of their decision to locate in Chattanooga.
In the six years we’ve been in business, our communities realized a minimum of $850 million in value based on the fiber-optic infrastructure. It’s from investments, it’s from preventing outages, it’s from entrepreneur activity, it’s from a whole plethora of activities.
Senior program specialist for broadband, Commerce Department
In our country we are going to lead by being innovators, and it’s very hard to strike innovation without really high-speed, good broadband.
Sometimes there are silos. There are silos in the private sector organizations, there are silos in the federal government. This is not news to anybody. But I think one of the benefits of the administration’s putting forward the Broadband Opportunity Council was that for months various cabinet level departments met and talked about what they are doing now with broadband and how their programs could be changed or slightly altered to make broadband more a part of their program. I think all of the cabinet-level departments, and of course the FCC and others, totally recognize that a big part of our economy being competitive going forward is based on being innovative, and we cannot be innovative without high-speed, good broadband with low latency.
Vice president of governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution
We know the skills required in the 21st-century economy are going to be online and digital. It’s absolutely vital that young people have access to electronic resources.
When you look at the statistics, people earning less than $30,000, their Internet usage rates are about 20 percentage points lower than the rest of America. That certainly is a big challenge. With that group, pricing is the big issue. . . . We need to make sure that schools, hospitals and libraries have computers that people in the community can use free of charge.
There are a lot of communities that are developing kiosks where, if you don’t happen to have Internet access at home, you can still apply for jobs and take advantage of the digital economy.