Microsoft had an interesting blog series all surrounding the digital divide, accessibility and strategies to help overcome the digital divide. The digital divide can be looked at through multiple lenses – but at the core, the digital divide relates to accessibility for all.
The Microsoft series identifies a 2010 IDC study that finds 50% of today’s jobs require technological skills, and that percentage can increase to 77% over the next 10 years. Also, the report identified that 9.5 million students do not have access to technology that will help develop the needed skills to make them competitive in the workforce.
There are many challenges related to removing the digital divide and mitigating its effects. In particular, access to broadband presents one roadblock in digital divide efforts. Providing access to broadband would be a critical step for the nation and help alleviate some symptoms of the digital divide. Although the government has reported success in improving broadband access, a remaining obstacle continues to be cost of broadband and computers. There have been some promising initiatives, which have used smart phones and taken advantage of new technology to provide low-income citizens with access to the internet.
With funding so tight in government, it is a hard sell to support investing in broadband across the nation. In my opinion, in the long-run, investing in broadband is critical to the nation. There are a couple ways to look at this, and Curt Kulcun, Vice President of Microsoft Public Sector, identifies a few in his blog post. The first reason, is that regardless, costs associated with the digital divide are going to increase. By providing widely accessible broadband, some of the cost associated with the digital should drop, because more access means that citizens can attain the much needed technological skills. Curt Kulcun states, “the greater the digital divide, the harder it is for the government and industry to find qualified employees.”
I decided to spend some time looking at what kind of programs are currently being done at government to help close the digital divide, two programs that caught my eye were Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and Connect to Compete.
Broadband Technology Opporunties Program (BTOP)
BTOP was part of President Obama’s 2009 Simulus Bill. The bill contained $4.7 billion in grant money for those in rural and low-income communities to help provide access to broadband technology. There is an interesting summary of the program here, below are the key findings from a December 2011 quarterly report:
- 123 infrastructure projects totaling $3.5 billion in Federal grant funds to construct broadband networks;
- 66 Public Computer Center (PCC) projects totaling $201 million in Federal grant funds to provide access to broadband, computer equipment, computer training, job training, and educational resources to the public and vulnerable populations; and
- 44 Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) projects totaling nearly $251 million in Federal grant funds to support innovative projects that promote broadband adoption, especially among vulnerable population groups where broadband technology traditionally has been underutilized.
Through September 2011, 31 BTOP recipients reported that their training and adoption projects led 229,178 households and 1,577 businesses to subscribe to broadband services. The Program exceeded its goal of 100,000 new households or business subscribers for FY11.
- Report identifies to success stories from Arkansas and Miami-Dade County
As of September 30, 2011, BTOP funds have allowed Connect Arkansas to distribute approximately 130 personal computers and record 408 new sustainable broadband subscribers.
As of September 30, 2011, BTOP funds have allowed the Miami-Dade County School District to distribute computers to more than 2,400 families, and record 2,000 new sustainable broadband adopters.
Connect to Compete
Connect to Compete was another Federal level initiative, this was a private-public partnership that began in May of 2011. Connect to Compete offered discounted broadband and computers to low-income citizens. The program has many supporters, including Microsoft, Comcast, and Time Warner. Microsoft has participated in Connect to Compete by offering $250 computers with Windows 7 and Microsoft Office pre-loaded and also providing $150 refurbished computers with the same software loaded. Microsoft also developed a free online portal that offers job skills trainings and basic digital literacy in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.
A report from the FCC and Connect to Compete highlighted some related challenges of the Digital Divide:
- One-third of all Americans – 100 million people – haven’t adopted broadband at home. Broadband adoption is key to America’s competitiveness – to jobs, e-government, education, and energy. Compare that to South Korea and Singapore where adoption rates top 90 percent.
- According to the Pew Research Center, the top three obstacles to broadband adoption are digital literacy and trust, relevance and cost.
- There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots.
- Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted3
- Less than 50% of African Americans, Latinos, elderly and rural populations have adopted broadband4
- About 46% of low-income families have adopted broadband at home compared with over 90% of higher- income families5
- Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy.
- 80%+ of Fortune 500 companies require online job applications (including major employers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and ExxonMobil)
- A Federal Reserve study found that students with a PC and broadband at home have six to eight percentage point higher graduation rates than similar student who don’t have home access to the Internet
- Consumers with broadband at home can save more than $7,000 a year.
Although these programs are great steps forward, more work needs to be done to inform citizens of the opportunity and encourage participation to help citizens develop the skills they need to succeed in the future.
What are some programs you know of related to the digital divide? What are some of the challenges you see and obstacles to overcoming digital divide?
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