Technology touches everyone, everywhere. Every household needs to have broadband access. It is no longer a luxury. But large sectors of the population lack access to such services for internet use as well as other crucial forms of digital technology. As a parent and educator, I have pondered this dilemma for years. The depth of this problem became even more apparent when I attended workshops including the recent “Readying Idaho’s Rural Communities to Capture the Benefits of Digitalization” run by The University of Idaho Extension in conjunction with The Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL).
This digital divide negatively impacts education, human connection, and job opportunities. Five million rural American households and 15.3 million urban or metro areas still don’t access broadband internet. A study by the Pew Research Center noted that 24% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone and 40% of those with lower incomes don’t have home broadband services or a computer. Roughly half of low income families have struggled to pay their internet and cell phone bills.
In today’s economy, many jobs require digital skills. People who do not have access to the internet or digital devices are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding employment. They may be unable to apply for jobs online, complete job training programs, or use the internet to network with potential employers. Millions of unemployed workers have trouble navigating state unemployment websites.
The internet has made it easier than ever for people to connect with each other. However, people who do not have access to the internet are missing out on this opportunity. They may not be able to stay in touch with friends and family, access important information, or participate in online communities. A person with a disability might have a hard time heading to the doctor. But internet access could remedy this situation through telemedicine.
Almost 15 percent of students face barriers in remote learning conditions because they lack access to high-speed internet at home. The internet is a valuable tool for learning. Students who have access to the internet can use it to research topics, complete assignments, and connect with other learners. However, students who do not have access to the internet may not be able to keep up with their schoolwork, participate in online learning programs, or access the same resources as their peers.
There are a variety of initiatives that can help Idahoans bridge the digital divide and access the information and resources they need in their daily lives.
The federal Affordable Connectivity Program is a discount on monthly internet bills for qualifying low-income households.
* Up to $30 per month for broadband services purchased by eligible households.
* Up to $75 per month for broadband services purchased by eligible households on tribal lands.
* One-time discount of up to $100 on the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers (if the purchaser contributes more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price).
For more, including how to apply, visit https://getacp.org.
ICfL offers a website, https://idahodigitalskills.org/, that supports Idahoans looking to expand their digital skills through free online courses. The many available courses include: creating a résumé, searching for a job online, training on Microsoft Word and Excel, using healthcare.gov, learning about cloud storage, the basics of video conferencing, being safe online, intros to Skype and Facebook, and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The site includes a variety of courses that are available in both English and Spanish, including the ACP course.
The Digital Access for All Idahoans (DAAI) Plan is a comprehensive five-year statement plan which will serve as a benchmark and roadmap for achieving digital equity in Idaho. For more information, visit https://libraries.idaho.gov/digital-access-for-all-idahoans/. To stay up to date on the DAAI Plan, access the newsletter linked at the bottom of the webpage.
For further information about digital inclusion, including its five key elements, check out the Idaho Digital Access Workbook at https://libraries.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/Idaho-Digital-Access-Workbook-1.pdf. There are also tools and data that is specific to Idaho.
Terms such as the digital divide and the homework gap are often used to describe the disparity separating those with access to the internet from those without; however, these terms do not always capture the complexities of our digital age. Presented here are some resources to help bridge the digital divide. Idahoans may also visit their public library for access to technology and hands-on help with everything from conducting research or a job interview to connecting with faraway family members online.
The digital divide is a complex problem with no easy solutions. However, there are a number of things that can be done to address it. Governments can invest in infrastructure to make internet access more affordable and available. Schools can provide students with access to computers and the internet. And businesses can offer training programs to help employees develop digital skills.
By working together, we can close the digital divide and help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed in the digital age.