Solving The Problem of Digital Equity and Digital Literacy Will Strengthen Our Economy
The impact of digital inequity on communities of color and low-income families has been a challenge for City leaders for decades. The race to solve the digital divide was thrown into hyper drive by COVID-19.
Underserved communities attempt to manage the digital divide with smart phones and public spaces. Students get internet access at school, at libraries, shopping malls and coffee shops. Not-for-profits, for example, Philadelphia OIC, also provide the community with internet access and computers through free computer labs. COVID-19 eliminated these options and laid bare the inadequacy of these piecemeal solutions.
The pandemic also showed that when we have the will, we can tackle seemingly intractable problems. After the schools were physically closed, it was clear that we had to find a way to continue our children’s education. The civic and business community stepped up to provide every child a laptop and free access to the internet for the balance of the school year. This solution, while inspiring, was temporary. It did not solve the problem.
School is slated to open in September and the overarching problem of access to the internet and laptops has reared its ugly head again.
Reliable and efficient access to the internet is critical for students and jobseekers. Access to the internet is essential not only for k-12 education, but also for job opportunities. Employers no longer receive or review paper job applications. Everything is on-line! Even the 2020 Census which controls our representation in Congress and the federal resources our community receives is electronic. Digital literacy and reliable internet access are no longer a luxury.
According to Pew Research, four in ten United States households do not have broadband access or a computer in the home. Microsoft research places the number at 162 million Americans with very slow or no internet access. Only 50% of African American families have broad band access compared to 74% of white families.
The City of Philadelphia is making digital equity a priority. The City plans to launch three initiatives to provide affordable digital solutions to the community: 1.) ensuring that all students have access to technology; 2.) reimagining public computing centers; and 3.) guaranteeing that all residents have access to computers.
It is an enormous task to undertake. It is also non-negotiable, if we are to reduce poverty in our City and give our children a fighting chance to successfully compete in this economy.
Government must also invest in broad band infrastructure and Wi-Fi hotspots across the City and make it accessible to low-income residents. The United States has the 3rd most expensive internet access in the world. Yet, the ability to access the internet with ease should be no different than the ability to access basic utilities: water, electricity, and gas. In fact, it can be argued that the internet should be a utility.
Equally important, we must remove the barriers to obtaining home computers. Pew Research found that 19% of households cannot afford to purchase a computer.
Providing people with access to computers and the internet improves academic performance and increases economic opportunity. Digital literacy is an essential skill. It is as necessary to success as reading, writing and arithmetic.
A permanent solution requires a collaboration between City government, corporate Philadelphia, and not-for-profits. Such a collaboration is exemplified by the Comcast partnership with Philadelphia OIC to provide digital access to low-income Philadelphians. This collaboration offers free resources and tools to help low income citizens become proficient using a computer.
Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and Philadelphia OIC’s digital literacy programs help address the issue of digital equity, but more is required. To have a meaningful impact on poverty and educational attainment broad band and fiber optics must be spread throughout the City like a utility and it must be coupled with the availability of affordable equipment.
Investing in reliable and affordable internet access and equipment for low income families will help the economy flourish. Employers require a well-educated and digitally literate work force. The ability of our region to not only recover but to rise to the challenges of a post COVID economy, is directly tied to solving the digital divide that exacerbates the poverty that holds Philadelphia down.
Now is the time for City leaders, corporate Philadelphia, and the not-for-profit community to make the investment and commitment to eliminate the digital divide in our City.
Renée Cardwell Hughes, President & CEO
This commentary was published in the Philadelphia Tribune on August 10, 2020