With one-third of Americans still lacking broadband Internet connections at home, access to the Internet is often considered an equity issue. Yet programs aimed at narrowing the digital divide may leave their strongest legacies in the areas of community and economic development. Online access is a gateway to opportunities in education, workforce, health, and other areas that increasingly depend on digital access and skills.
In 2009, funds from the U.S. federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), this approximately $4 billion grant program aims to bridge the digital divide, create jobs, and improve education, health care, and public safety in communities across the country. Now, more than halfway into this three-year program, gains are evident, and concerns about sustaining them are dominating conversations.
Although the program has allowed NTIA grantees to install countless computer terminals in libraries and other public venues, provide millions of hours of training, and produce well over 350,000 new broadband adopters, perhaps its more significant achievements will be seen in education, economic development, and health care.
Given current federal and state budget constraints, philanthropy and government are well-suited partners to improve public broadband access. Last week, NTIA hosted a symposium to discuss the ways in which foundations, state and local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and others can work together to decrease the digital divide and actually help us meet our missions more effectively, using tactics like investing in sustainable broadband adoption programs and public computing centers.
The Council on Foundations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the AARP Foundation, and the Benton Foundation, joined state and local government officials, nonprofits, and academics for the meeting. Government agencies were well represented with representatives from the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the International Trade Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Institute of Museums and Library Services, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Conversations also focused on how technology access directly influences how well our individual programs achieve what they set out to achieve.
“Technology allows educators to personalize education and increase productivity, allowing us to get more students over a higher bar,” said Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education. Access to broadband-connected devices at school and at home actually helps address the educational attainment gap that currently leaves one-quarter of children dropping out of school, a third of college freshmen needing remediation, and nearly 93 million adults undereducated and therefore ill-prepared to apply for the jobs that will drive today’s economy and tomorrow’s.
In Boston, for example, the Technology Goes Home (TGH) program trains students and parents together to use online educational resources to help students learn, and earn a home computer in the process. For many parents of fifth graders, Tech Goes Home is the first thing to really bring them into their children’s schools. The new comfort of directly participating in their child’s education lasts far beyond the class. So do the outcomes for tech-savvy students. A recent survey found that 85 percent of TGH grads regularly use their new technology for academic purposes; they were more likely to use technology for academics than their peers who did not participate in the program.
In Idaho, Ann Joslin of the state’s Commission of Libraries credits her partnership with Roger Madsen, director of Idaho’s Department of Labor, with enabling libraries to work together to expand job search and skills development resources beyond Idaho’s 26 One Stop centers, establishing 55 job centers at public libraries. What does that mean to people in local communities? Let them tell you themselves.
Of course the key question is what happens next? How do government agencies, funders, and non-profit organizations partner to continue to effect real change when it comes to bridging this digital divide in the United States? The closing discussion in this first symposium netted a number of ideas from increasing our attention on evaluation when it comes to our efforts, to improving access to technology, collecting and disseminating best practices between agencies and organizations, and sharing information and coordinating policies at the national level. If we, as leaders in this effort, keep technology access front and center, it will not only address the inequity in Internet access which keeps some Americans at a disadvantage, it will also help us meet our missions more effectively.