In closing the digital divide, 'free' isn't the key

At a symposium in Washington, D.C. last month, the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) gathered public and private industry leaders to take a hard look at broadband adoption within communities of color. The discussion was set in motion by highly-respected pollster Cornell Belcher, who recently conducted a landmark survey of 700 African-Americans and 200 Hispanics to better understand their perceptions of broadband Internet, whether they value the technology and why they were or were not yet online.

Belcher's poll results revealed a key finding for achieving 100 percent broadband penetration: digital literacy programs. In fact, respondents valued such training even more than free Internet access (only 10 percent of those polled said that free Internet use is the primary impetus for getting online). 

A large, growing body of evidence--scientific and anecdotal--leads us to believe the government should support such programs. Many Americans still don't know how to use the Internet or how to take advantage of its resources, opportunities and information. Training and mentoring would allow people currently left offline, such as the 58 percent of those polled by Belcher who do not consider themselves regular Internet users, to gain the basic skills to benefit from broadband. These programs do not need to be exclusively government-run, however, with non-profit One Economy Corporation's Digital Connectors program serving as the most innovative and successful digital literacy effort in the Nation.

To be effective, Internet literacy courses must be culturally, geographically, gender and language appropriate. At the IIA symposium, panelists underscored the importance of helping unserved and underserved communities understand the relevance of broadband technology in their own lives and in the lives of their families. Supporting this hypothesis, one-third of respondents in the phone survey conducted by Belcher said they would be more likely to adopt if they had more information about how they could benefit from going online.

Panelists also explained that Internet literacy courses need to be offered at places and times that allow those who need the classes most--day laborers, unemployed men and women, stay-at-home parents--to attend at low, or no, cost. Many groups that disproportionately make up the Digital Divide are price-sensitive, and financially burdensome digital literacy training or higher costs of broadband access could hurt adoption.

Two keynote speakers at the symposium--Rey Ramsey, chief executive officer of the aforementioned One Economy Corporation, and Fabian Núñez, Speaker Emeritus of the California State Assembly--fully understand the challenges to extending and expanding broadband adoption within communities where it is needed most. Nonprofit One Economy has helped bring broadband access to the homes of more than 300,000 low-income Americans since 2000. And as one of eleven children born to Mexican parents, Núñez discussed the importance of capitalizing on every opportunity available and how technology plays a critical role in enabling individual empowerment.

To help stress the importance of every American having access to broadband, Núñez has joined David Steward, chairman and founder of World Wide Technology, Inc., the largest African-American-owned business in America, in leading the IIA Broadband Ambassador Program.  The honorary co-chairmen join experts, academics and entrepreneurs across various industries including health care, education, and technology.

These leaders' insights focuses on factors that policy makers must consider to develop an effective National Broadband Plan. For the success of our country, it is imperative that public policies support connecting more people and not deter Americans from embracing the benefits of high-speed Internet through unneeded taxes or regulation. 

The complete archives, webcast and polling presentation from the "IIA Broadband Symposium: Access for All Americans" can be found on the IIA's website.

Bruce Mehlman is a leader in Washington D.C., helping Fortune 500 companies and innovative start-ups understand, anticipate and navigate the public policy environment and trends likely to impact the global marketplace through the bipartisan lobbying firm he founded, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. He concurrently serves as the Executive Director of the Technology CEO Council and Co-Chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.