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Here’s a private sector solution to digital divide

January 6, 2019

OK, Google, what happens if I can’t afford the internet at home?

Answer: you lose out on more and more of modern life.

Broadband access is no longer a luxury. It is now, more than ever, the primary gateway to educational opportunities, health care, employment and just about everything else (including dating and YouTube-assisted procrastination activities). That’s why it is a priority that everyone – from seniors to veterans to former prisoners reentering society – has access to internet at home.

A key component in achieving this is the private sector. When the private sector steps up to the plate, it sets an example for their corporate peers to follow. This is what we are beginning to see when it comes to broadband access – but we need to see more of it.

A recent initiative by broadband companies Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, and AT&T has been focused on getting low-income Americans online, by implementing programs to bring a low-cost internet connection to poorer communities.

This approach was pioneered seven years ago, when the Obama administration worked with Comcast during the review of its proposed merger with NBC Universal to launch a new model for public-private collaboration to bridge digital divide. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People now calls this Internet Essentials program the “largest experiment ever” to close the digital divide. So far it has connected over six million individuals – roughly the equivalent to the entire population of all five boroughs of New York City.

Even so, too many Americans are still marooned offline because they are not covered geographically or otherwise by the program offerings. Reaching these new communities requires, among other things, learning from the lessons that have buoyed from the current programs. We know now, for instance, that while low-cost service is critical, many low-income individuals don’t have access to some of the most basic of electronic devices, such as affordable computers, printers, and routers.

The work so far has helped reaffirm academic studies that demonstrate basic digital literacy to navigate the internet is critical to bringing non-digital-natives online and helping them thrive in the connected life.

The use of “community ambassadors” and local partner organizations have proved to be a critical link in making broadband programs a success. On-the-ground support and counseling helps salve anxieties, and lets non-users start in the “shallow end” where they can start honing their digital skills.

For new champions starting up these programs in un-served areas, it’s also critical to connect internet access to a core life mission of the people being served. For example, many current programs have thrived by targeting families with school-aged children who quickly see how internet access and digital skills help them keep apace with their peers in wealthier and digitally plentiful communities. And Comcast recently tailored its program to help low-income veterans reach online support groups, access online health care, and reenter the workforce.

Now more companies must serve as “laboratories of internet democracy” and work to fill unmet need. Sub-communities like non-English-speaking households, the chronically ill, and the unemployed all face their own unique sets of challenges, and can all be digitally empowered in different ways.

Across the private sector – from Boeing hiring veterans to Apple donating iPads to teachers – we see hopeful glimmers of civic activism that fill the gap left by political gridlock and resource shortfalls. This is America at its best – yet more can be done. Every Fortune 500 company now needs to follow suit by pledging a civic program related to their respective industry to uplift at least one million Americans who are in need. For, at the end of the day, the best gift the private sector can bring to Americans is – in this time of dysfunction and hyperpolarization – something remarkably simple yet not always readily available: the ability plug into the increasingly all-encompassing online world (and by that token, when they want a break from the chaotic news cycle, the option to unplug).

Garrett Johnson is a co-founder of the conservative Lincoln Network, a national community of technology professionals in Washington, D.C.

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