How Are You Solving the Digital Divide

One of the most common questions I’m being asked these days is from local politicians and economic development folks who want examples of other communities that are tackling and solving the digital divide.

I’m able to trot out the big-picture stories because they come to my attention in reading about the industry. As an example, just before I wrote this blog, I read an article that says that the State of Maryland will be providing 150,000 laptops to homes that don’t have a computer. The article also mentions that the State has a program labeled the Emergency Broadband Benefits program that has spent $4.6 million this year to help low-income homes pay for home broadband.

Those programs sound great, and there are other large initiatives at the state level around the country undertaking similar efforts. But telling local officials about those big programs is not the answer they are looking for. They want to know what they can do to tackle the digital divide in their local town or county.

My blog has been full of discussions over the last year of federal and state grant programs aimed at building faster broadband networks to rural homes that have no decent broadband alternatives. I’ve had several recent blogs talking about how the pace of building new broadband networks is going maddingly slow – but these networks are coming.

While a new rural fiber or wireless network in a county might solve the broadband speed issue, these local folks know that they still have a lot of other broadband issues to overcome. The classic example of the digital divide uses the analogy of a three-legged stool. Even when a home gets faster broadband, the home is not going to get over the digital divide until three issues are solved. Bringing a new network solves the need for an adequate broadband connection. But many homes will not be able to afford the new broadband connection. Folks also need a computer in the home in order to fully enjoy the benefits of broadband. Finally, folks need to know how to use the computer and how to navigate the online world to achieve their digital goals.

Local officials are looking for examples of local plans and programs that are tackling all three of these issues. I think it’s almost universally agreed that a community will be far better off when most of its citizens have digital literacy.

My broadband career has been focused on the network solution – how to fund and build the needed broadband networks that communities need. I find that I have almost no examples of small or rural communities that have solved any of the three legs of the digital divide. For example, I have talked to dozens of counties that found ways to get computers to every student during the pandemic. But none of these counties had any plans for getting computers to homes without students – and very few have any plans for continuing to give computers to students once the federal monies that paid for the computers are gone.

This blog is asking for help from my readers. I want to hear stories from communities that are tackling any of the three legs of the digital divide head-on. I really want to hear from a community that is tackling all three issues – because they are the poster child that everybody is looking for. I will likely write blogs about some of the success stories I hear – but even if I don’t write about each one, I will let other communities know what you are doing. I also am interested in hearing about efforts that didn’t work – please help others not repeat your mistakes.

Everybody tells me that solving the digital divide means tackling the issue for one person or one family at a time. The question everybody is asking me is how to create a sustainable program that can do that. My contact email is under my picture on this blog. I’d love to hear your story.

6 thoughts on “How Are You Solving the Digital Divide

  1. “Bringing a new network solves the need for an adequate broadband connection. But many homes will not be able to afford the new broadband connection.”

    Perhaps we need to reconsider our definition of “adequate broadband” to include modes of high bandwidth connectivity that can be provided much more cheaply. In this paper we propose a “basic” connectivity service which requires that supports latency-tolerant applications. By requiring uniformly low latency we may be subsidizing interactive applications at the cost of digital inclusion.

    “Is Universal Broadband Service Impossible”
    Micah Beck, Terry Moore
    IEEE 19th International Conference on Mobile Ad Hoc and Smart Systems

  2. I do believe in the 3 legged stool use for modeling and while it is true that you need all 3 things to make it work, nothing works for anybody without the network no matter how many computers or subsidies or low cost programs are provided. Maybe if we could build it first, the networks themselves could solve these problems once they are paid for. I was going to mention Vermont, in particular ValleyNet with Stan Williams and Carol Monroe, that have made a good start on not only the 1st leg but the second and third as well. It is amazing what a community can do when there is someone to organize and drive it, navigate the hurdles, and stay with it for the long run. Nationwide, funding is still the problem and the federal programs are not the be all end all solution with their complicated and onerous
    processes and requirements.

  3. In Central NC, this non-profit collects used laptops from corporations and refurbishes them to give to students who don’t have one. They have created partnerships for connectivity as well. They are nearing 20 years old and just moved into a new building, so clearly have found a sustainable model.

Leave a Reply