Shelton: America is closing the digital divide

Hilary O. Shelton

President Barack Obama recently announced a TechHire program that will invest in high-tech job skills training for America’s labor force. Because tech wages continue to rise faster than other sectors, initiatives like this not only help catapult our tech leadership in the 21st century but also help address income inequality. Similarly, the president’s plan to wire 99 percent of our schools with broadband Internet service, will similarly help ensure students – and our future workforce – will have the necessary skills for American preeminence in the 21st century.

And as important as these initiatives are, they are only part of the puzzle. If the U.S. wants to truly be the global tech leader, every American has to have broadband access.

This is no longer an option for Americans, especially for communities of color hardest hit by the recent recession. Eighty percent of all U.S. jobs will require digital fluency within the next 10 years and 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept job applications online. College applications, financial aid, and even registration and classwork itself have all moved online. But today, African-American and Hispanic families lag some 15 points behind whites in broadband adoption.

Four years ago, the FCC teamed with the nation’s largest broadband provider to initiate the largest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide. The undertaking, known as Internet Essentials, offers heavily discounted broadband service at $9.95 a month and a fully functioning computer for less than $150 to low income families – those with a child eligible for the federal school lunch program. They also offer to train those participating in the program with state-of-the-art digital skills. The government’s private sector partner is Comcast; other companies, such as Cox Communications and CenturyLink, are following behind with similarly helpful programs.

The program is unique because it not only addresses the major barrier to adoption — demonstrating relevance of the broadband Internet and teaching the skills to use it — but because of the additional incentives it offers such as discounted broadband service and hardware. The program virtually eliminates the barriers most often cited for not having the broadband Internet at home.

The success of the program has been beyond anyone’s imagination. Internet Essentials has connected 450,000 homes representing 1.8 million low-income Americans to broadband, every one of whom has a story about the doors that have been opened and the new possibilities this change has meant.

The combination of hands-on training, and inexpensive broadband service and equipment has made this one of the most successful digital divide initiatives ever tried. Some 85 percent of program subscribers use the Internet every single day – 98 percent said their children use it for school, 95 percent said it improved children’s grades. In real terms, that means hundreds of thousands of students with new learning experiences and new opportunities to find jobs, connect with their families, and apply to college.

It’s going to take a village of these kinds of creative public-private partnerships to salve the digital divide.

Hilary O. Shelton is the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy.