OK, Google, what happens if I can’t afford the internet at home?
Answer: you lose out on more and more of modern life.
Broadband access is no longer a luxury. It is now, more than ever, the primary gateway to educational opportunities, health care, employment and just about everything else (including dating and YouTube-assisted procrastination activities).
That’s why it is a priority that everyone — from seniors to veterans to former prisoners re-entering society — has access to internet at home.
A key component in achieving this is the private sector. When the private sector steps up to the plate, it sets an example for its corporate peers to follow. This is what we are beginning to see when it comes to broadband access — but we need to see more of it.
A recent initiative by broadband companies Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity and AT&T has been focused on getting low-income Americans online by implementing programs to bring a low-cost internet connection to poorer communities.
This approach was pioneered seven years ago, when the Obama administration worked with Comcast during the review of its proposed merger with NBC Universal to launch a new model for public-private collaboration to bridge the digital divide. The NAACP now calls this “Internet Essentials” program the “largest experiment ever” to close the digital divide. So far it has connected over 6 million individuals — which is roughly the equivalent of the population of all five boroughs of New York City.
Even so, too many Americans are still marooned offline because they are not covered geographically or otherwise by the program offerings. Reaching these new communities requires, among other things, learning from the lessons of the current programs. We know now, for instance, that while low-cost service is critical, many low-income individuals don’t have access to some of the most basic electronic devices, such as affordable computers, printers and routers.
The work so far has helped reaffirm academic studies that demonstrate basic digital literacy to navigate the internet is critical to bringing people who are not digital natives online and helping them thrive in the connected life.
The use of “community ambassadors” and local partner organizations has proved to be a critical link in making broadband programs a success. On-the-ground support and counseling helps salve anxieties and lets nonusers start in the “shallow end” where they can start honing their digital skills.
For new champions starting up these programs in unserved areas, it’s also critical to connect internet access to a core life mission of the people being served. For example, many current programs have thrived by targeting families with school-age children, who quickly see how internet access and digital skills help them keep pace with their peers in wealthier and digitally plentiful communities. And Comcast recently tailored its program to help low-income veterans reach online support groups, access online health care and re-enter the workforce.
Now more companies must serve as “laboratories of internet democracy” and work to fill unmet needs. Subcommunities such as non-English-speaking households, the chronically ill and the unemployed all face their own unique sets of challenges, and all can be digitally empowered in different ways.2 comments on this story
Across the private sector — from Boeing hiring veterans to Apple donating iPads to teachers — we see hopeful glimmers of civic activism that fill the gap left by political gridlock and resource shortfalls. This is America at its best, yet more can be done. Every Fortune 500 company now needs to follow suit by pledging a civic program related to its respective industry to uplift at least 1 million Americans who are in need.
For, at the end of the day, the best gift the private sector can bring to Americans is — in this time of dysfunction and hyperpolarization — something remarkably simple yet not always readily available: the ability to plug into the increasingly all-encompassing online world (and by that token, when they want a break from the chaotic news cycle, the option to unplug).