Screenshot of Internet Society livestream of panel on digital inclusion at the Next Century Cities’ conference
WASHINGTON, January 23, 2020 – The digital divide is a real division in the country, affects more than just rural areas and keeps Americans from crucial access to 21st Century skills, a diverse panel of digital inclusion experts said Thursday at an event here hosted by Next Century Cities.
The digital divide affects more than just rural areas, said National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer, speaking at Next Century Cities’ event on bipartisan technology policy.
Joshua Edmonds, director of digital Inclusion for the city of Detroit, enthusiastically agreed. The digital divide is not going away, said Edmonds.
Edmonds said that funding to address the digital divide cannot just be allocated to rural areas while urban areas are ignored. He also complained about the high cost of broadband base packages in Detroit, he said.
Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet compared the conventional focus on internet access and subscriptions to the needed prioritization on technology and people. People have to actually use the technology to reach opportunities and solutions, said Sallet.
Additionally, Siefer said that the lack of digital literacy is a major barrier to improving access to broadband success. And while she said that the biggest barrier to deployment was cost, people also need basic digital literacy skills.
Organizing coding camps for kids will not reap the desired effects if kids cannot practice at home or do not have a basic understanding of internet and technology, said Siefer.
While Edmonds fights for connectivity in Detroit, he sees a correlation between low connectivity and poverty rates., Edmonds said if the library closes, the next option for internet access is McDonald’s.
Tom Struble, Manager of Technology and Innovation, R Street Institute, said all levels of government can help in facilitating broadband adoption. Community leaders can push adoption because they are familiar with community issues, said Struble.
Struble stressed the goal should be reaching the demographic that has access to broadband and the money to pay for it, yet does not subscribe because they do not have the skills to use the internet. Users can engage more with their community through the internet, he said, whether through apps on their phones or government websites, and need the skills to do so.
Middle skill jobs no longer require a college degree, but a digital skill set, said Sallet. He was concerned that as income inequality rises and minority income trends dip beneath the average income, internet access is the key to economic opportunity and the local government is critical in closing the digital divide.
He said the nation needed to set a goal for everyone to have access to high performance broadband by the end of the decade, said Sallet.