Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Nov-Dec 2018 issue

Connection Is Essential: Closing the Digital Divide

By Ron Orlando

There’s no doubt that both having access to and understanding how to use the internet can be fundamental to success in today’s world.

The internet is an essential tool that helps kids connect to homework and educational resources, assists adults in their search for better jobs, and allows everyone to be more connected to what’s going on in the world.

According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, 84 percent of Minnesota households subscribe to broadband at home. However, only 63 percent of all Minnesota households with an annual income of less than $35,000 have a broadband subscription at home. This 21 percentage-point difference illustrates the digital divide in Minnesota.

Closing the digital divide takes nothing short of a movement. Cities can help by working to educate their low-income residents about the resources that are available to them.

The under-connected class

In June 2017, the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies issued a report on what it called the emerging “under-connected class.” These are the households that rely on smartphones for internet access. That means no computers and no home Wi-Fi.

It’s the kids from these families who we see lingering on school property in the evening or in the parking lots of fast food restaurants, so they can use the Wi-Fi. And they’re trying to do their homework on smartphones never designed for that purpose.

Nationally, the persistence of the digital divide is one of the more glaring failures of the digital revolution. And the sad truth is that people living on the wrong side of that divide are disproportionately low-income and minority families—the very population that would benefit most from being connected to the internet at home. There is a slew of research on the causes of the digital divide, and it’s consistent—the No. 1 barrier to broadband adoption, by a mile, is a complex mix of digital literacy skills and a lack of perceived need or interest in having the internet at home.

The second barrier is the lack of an internet-capable computer, and third is the cost of internet service.

Internet equals opportunity

Crossing that digital divide can be a life-changing transformation. It opens up opportunities for education, employment, health care, government services, and a wealth of information and entertainment.

Also, digital skills are increasingly required to qualify for 21st-century jobs, including so-called “middle skills” jobs. And, of course, opportunities to communicate with friends and family across the street or around the world.

Research has shown that a combination of internet access and digital literacy training and resources is critical to workforce development and should be an important issue for any business owner who is looking to hire those with technical skills.

Building awareness of resources

The greatest advocates for digital inclusion are teachers, educators, community- based organizations, and local government officials who help spread the word about the importance of access to high-speed internet at home. These local officials can be the bridge between families and the digital movement by simply providing them with the information on essential programs that provide high-speed broadband and digital training for low-income families.

For example, Way to Grow, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization dedicated to early childhood education, provides materials about low-income broadband programs to the families they serve.

And St. Paul nonprofit organization Family Values for Life held a back-to-school event that provided awareness for programs that provide internet and digital training to families in need.

These efforts to raise awareness ensure that kids are ready to connect to educational resources, parents are ready to search for better jobs, and families everywhere are ready to stay informed.

No one company or government program can fix the digital divide. It’s about working together to make a meaningful impact and bringing this essential connection to even more families.

Making the world better

Even U.S. Olympic gold medalists Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando recently talked about the need to close the digital divide.

“We know how important a home internet connection is,” says Lamoureux- Davidson. “In our lives, we’ve also learned firsthand how important it is to stand up for what you believe in. We want to encourage others to use the internet to stand up for what they believe in and to make the world a better, fairer place, not just for themselves, but for the next generation, too. You can’t change the world if you’re not online.”

Ron Orlando is vice president, external affairs, with Comcast (https://corporate.comcast.com). Comcast is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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