The Digital Equity Challenge

It’s hard to look anywhere in the broadband industry today and not hear about digital inclusion. One big reason for this is the two giant grant programs created by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to tackle digital equity issues. The first is the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, that will allocate $1.5 billion to the States for this program – that’s $300 million per year from 2022 through 2026. The second is the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. This grant program of $1.25 billion will be administered directly by the NTIA and will award $250 million per year from 2022 through 2026.

As I talk to folks, I’m starting to understand that a lot of people don’t really understand what digital equity means. Twenty years ago, we referred to this as the digital divide. The folks working with the digital divide issue came up with a three-legged stool analogy to describe the way to tackle the issue – make sure homes have a computer, make sure they have the training to use the computer, and get them connected to broadband.

These three steps haven’t changed. Unfortunately, we have twenty years of experience that shows that very few communities have made a big dent in the digital divide. There are communities that have been successful in solving parts of the three-legged stool – but not the whole thing. We now have a large amount of grant funding that can help communities finally make a real difference with digital equity.

One thing we’ve learned is that you have to solve all three issues for a given household to bring them into the digital world. It doesn’t do any good to provide the help needed to navigate the paperwork to get the $30 discount with the ACP program for a house that doesn’t have a computer. It does no good to give a computer to people who don’t know how to use it.

I remember twenty years ago that a lot of communities had free basic computer courses. But over the years, that kind of basic training seems to have melted away. This is partially due to an erroneous assumption that most adults know how to use computers. But I also think the training back then being wasn’t relevant to what people wanted from a computer, and instead tended to do things like teaching folks how to use Excel and Word.

Librarians can tell you how to do this the right way. People don’t ask for generic computer training in the library – they usually want to accomplish a specific task on the computer. That might mean applying for a specific job, looking up ancestors, using social media, or learning about a hobby. A librarian will tell you that helping somebody achieve a specific goal is the best way to demystify the Internet and to get people over any fear of using the computer.

These giant federal grants can help communities tackle this in the right way. A full digital equity plan might include somebody who can help folks navigate the ACP subsidy plan to choose and subscribe to a broadband product. The grants can be used to create a sustainable program to make sure homes can get computers. And a plan can provide trainers who can help individuals learn how to use the Internet to do the things that are most relevant in their lives.

Several colleagues have been telling me stories of the right way to train somebody to use the Internet. For example, one recent story I heard was about helping a young man develop the specific computer skills needed to land a higher-paying job. That kind of training can be transformational. That kind of result is not going to come from generic training courses in a computer lab – but with one-on-one training to help people achieve a specific goal. The whole community is better for every person lifted into digital literacy.

I guess the bottom line of this discussion is that the funding is available to put together comprehensive programs that can work. But it’s going to take a coordinated effort in a community to make real headway with digital equity. It’s going to be sad if communities use the one-time grant funding to tackle only one leg of the digital divide – we’ve been trying that approach for decades with only limited success. The good news is that there are people who know how to do this the right way – find them as soon as you can.

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