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To break down the digital divide, target relevance and affordability

Mon, 05/06/2013 - 1:23pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

It’s hard to believe some 20 years after Internet became available to most Americans that many of our neighbors are still not only offline but computer illiterate as well. I was reminded of that fact in March when the Governor of New Jersey proposed that the unemployed in the state, as a condition to receive their benefits, use the state’s jobs listing web site each week. One opposing lawmaker said in response (Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-15th District), "To those who are financially stable, requiring unemployed residents to search for jobs may seem like a no brainer. But not everyone can afford to buy a computer and not everyone can afford to pay for Internet access."

The Pew Research Center (PRC) has conducted a number of recent studies on internet adoption. One survey revealed that low household income one factor toward non-adoption, with “only six in ten (62 percent) of those living in households in the lowest income bracket (less than $30,000 per year) use the internet, compared with 90 percent of those making at least $50,000-74,999 and 97 percent of those making more than $75,000.”1 The same survey also reveals an education gap, as 43 percent of adults who have not completed high school use the internet, versus  94 percent of college graduates.2 Finally, apathy is still a concern, with “roughly half (48 percent) of non-internet users cite issues of relevance when asked why they do not go online.”3

To help get many of the remaining non-adopters online, the nonprofit Connect2Compete has teamed with The Advertising Council and Young and Rubicam to launch a three-year public service campaign. The TV and radio ads feature real people who heretofore have not found the internet relevant to their lives who are then shown how to go online and buy a plane ticket to visit a relative or learn how to use the internet to look for a job. The ads provide a toll-free number where callers are directed to a local, free, training class.

Connect2Compete’s mission is to eliminate the digital divide in America. It offers refurbished PCs or laptops (which include Windows 7 Professional Edition and Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition) and/or internet access at very low cost to qualifying individuals, and it promotes and encourages online literacy by putting the digitally illiterate in contact with free training and public computer access centers. Further, its web site www.everyoneon.org offers lots of useful information for the first-timer. Connect2Compete says approximately 62 million people consider themselves non-users of the internet.

The organization positions its message in a friendly, non-scary way. Yet the price people pay to remain offline can be steep. In the “EveryoneOn” press release, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, “The costs of digital exclusion—of not having access to Internet at home are rising every day. Offline Americans are missing out on opportunities in education, health care and employment.” Indeed, the job application process as – even for jobs that don’t require computer literacy –moved almost entirely online, and people who apply in person are often asked to fill out an online application or use an in-house computer terminal to apply. Of course, jobs that require computer literacy are likely to pay more than those that don’t, which can limit the earning potential of the job applicant.

And the digital divide is about more than just employment. This winter, thanks to the political fight over taxes that lasted right through the New Year’s holiday, public libraries received late shipments of some tax forms – forms that were readily available to Internet users on irs.gov. Another area of concern is the library itself. While most libraries offer computers for the public to use, some libraries are simply out of the reach of public transportation. And as communities face tough budget decisions, expect more libraries to cut back hours or get eliminated altogether.

But the beauty of the internet is that it fills the role that libraries have always provided. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn proclaims, “The benefits of connectivity are endless -- It literally brings the world to your fingertips.” And in a global, digital economy, we cannot afford to leave anybody behind.

1, 2 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project August 2011 Tracking Survey, conducted July 25-August 26, 2011. (http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Digital-differences/Main-Report/Internet-adoption-over-time.aspx)
3 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, April 29-May 30, 2010 Tracking Survey (http:pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Home-Broadband-2010.aspx.)

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