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Broadband AdoptionPublic Policy

The (Un)Surprising Reality of Closing the Digital Divide

@johnsolit

November 7, 2013

On Tuesday, Washington Post Live hosted a live conference event called “Bridging the Digital Divide.” It was a convening of experts from both public and private sectors to discuss why the digital divide matters, who’s left out, and what can be done to close the gap.

Guests included FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Lee Rainie, Director of the Internet and American Life Project at Pew Research Center, and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA).

While conversation ranged from job growth to education to the role of government in delivering broadband, one thing remained on top of mind: How to get more people to understand the value of broadband and to use the Internet.

WATCH PEW’S LEE RAINIE SPEAKING AT “BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE”

In a revealing statement, Pew’s Rainie said, “[Broadband users] do more stuff online, they spend more time online, they used a lot more video online…and probably most important of all, they become content creators themselves. They become participants in culture, civic life, and government life, in their communities in very different ways.”

This touches on one of the most important elements of the digital divide, namely that closing the divide is about activating people’s ability to improve their lives.  A recent Pew study revealed that of the 15 percent of Americans that are not online, 34 percent say they don’t have the Internet because it is not relevant to their lives. Interesting, especially when compared to the six percent who say price is the reason they don’t have broadband. So, while deployment and affordable pricing is a part of closing the gap, it’s more important to focus on showing people how broadband can improve their lives.

It’s unsurprising that user education is often the forgotten piece of the digital puzzle. We all pay our broadband bill, therefore we’re all acutely aware of the actual cost to our household bottom lines. It’s easy to imagine why someone with limited income might not want to pay for the Internet.

On the other hand, understanding the qualities of fast Internet is something we take for granted. It’s something we assume is a given. After all, who wouldn’t want faster downloads, access to local government, inexpensive educations, and better healthcare? But as the Pew study reveals, many people need to have the power of broadband revealed to them – for its relevance to be taught.  The Internet can be an intimidating place and to close the digital divide, education and assistance should be our primary mission.

That’s why, for example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials focuses so closely on education. The program offers free online, telephone, or in-person education programs that not only address basic online skills, but also reveal the power that broadband can bring a family and a community.

Closing the digital divide is a worthy goal. It will take efforts from all sectors, public and private. But in order to successfully close the gap, we need to focus on the real reasons American’s don’t use the Internet.

To see other video highlights from Washington Post Live’s “Bridging the Digital Divide” event, click here.