bentonAiming to help bridge the ¨digital divide,¨ a new study from the Benton Foundation identifies four core, interrelated digital inclusion activities deemed essential in helping low-income individuals and families access and make good use of broadband connectivity.

Based on a survey of eight digital inclusion organizations and authored by Ph.D. Justin Rhinesmith, the report can help better inform and guide policymakers at the local, state and federal levels, and can help researchers, practitioners and other key stakeholders achieve greater success in promoting meaningful broadband adoption for low income families and households, Benton Foundation highlights in a press release.

4 Key Broadband Adoption Success Factors
The following four activities are considered essential for digital inclusion organizations and initiatives to be successful, according to the study:

  • Providing low-cost broadband: Cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. Successful interventions will need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.” While all low-income individuals and families who participated in this study understood the value of broadband connectivity, most explained that cost remained the most significant barrier to adoption. Successful digital inclusion efforts should recognize the role that persistent poverty plays in shaping peoples’ abilities to access and use computers and the Internet. The findings suggest that more research is needed to understand budgeting issues and other concerns related to people’s experiences living in poverty.
  • Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services: Many digital inclusion organizations have developed innovative digital literacy training strategies to assist those who do not feel the Internet is relevant to them as well as those who already understand the importance of the Internet to their everyday lives. Many organizations also provide mobile digital literacy training in which they go outside their physical walls to reach people in places that are convenient to them.
  • Making low-cost computers available: Low-cost or free computers are often just as important as having access to low-cost or free Internet options, particularly for people in low-income communities. Digital inclusion organizations have embraced this reality by refurbishing older computers and making them available to low-income people for free or at a reduced cost. Some digital inclusion organizations also provide ongoing technical support to residents who need the social and technical assistance to keep their computers up and running—and connected online—over time.
  • Operating public access computing centers: Many digital inclusion organizations also maintain public access computing facilities that allow residents to access technology in places in which they feel comfortable and supported. These spaces also complement the digital literacy classes that are often offered in the same location. Low-income individuals and families value public access computing centers because they are often in convenient locations and have helpful staff that provide them with one-on-one support with computers and broadband Internet access.

4 Key Supporting Factors

The report goes on to identify other important factors affecting the effectiveness of digital literacy programs:

  • The importance of citywide and regional initiatives: All of the organizations identified the importance of citywide and regional digital inclusion initiatives and indicated the strength in coming together with other community partners and collaborators to support digital inclusion activities and share best practices. However, funding remains an issue to support these broader digital inclusion coalitions.
  • Concerns about program sustainability: No one or mix of commercial providers delivers the full suite of access, computing, and training that non-adopters need to take advantage of the content and services broadband has to offer. Moreover, most organizations that participated in this study expressed a concern that funding for organizations is limited. More funding and support are needed for all organizations in this study that are connecting low-income residents to low-cost Internet, digital literacy training, low-cost computers, and public access computing.
  • The need for outcomes-based evaluation: Most of the digital inclusion organizations that participated in this study did not have outcomes-based evaluation frameworks. However, all recognized the importance of having them. One of the surprising findings from the study was the need for outcomes-based evaluation frameworks at both the organizational and citywide/regional levels. This remains a need in many of the organizations studied.
  • Digital inclusion and broader policy goals: This report also joins other researchers who have argued that digital inclusion needs to be connected to broader policy issues in order to show the impacts of digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption initiatives.

Overcoming Persistent Obstacles
Despite the widely recognized importance of broadband access and digital skills in society, Dr. Rhinesmith highlights the various, persistent obstacles hindering digital inclusion organizations and initiatives. ¨[A]ccessible, reliable, and affordable broadband service continues to be out of reach for millions of Americans, many of whom live in low-income households,¨ he wrote on The Benton Foundation website.

¨This gap in adoption of high-speed Internet and the lack of skills needed to use broadband-enabled tools in meaningful ways continue to be significant problems that policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have all focused their attention on for over a decade.¨

In a December 11 letter to the FCC coordinated by Next Century Cities, the mayors of 44 cities, including from Boston, Charlotte and Seattle and smaller cities, expressed support of the agency’s proposal to improve low-income families’ Internet access via the federal Lifeline program.

“Since its inception, the Lifeline program has helped millions of American families have access to critical telecommunications services,” Next Century Cities’ Executive Director Deb Socia stated at the time. These forty-four Next Century Cities mayors and city leaders hope to bring the Lifeline program into the 21st century by including the essential broadband infrastructure that so many of their residents rely on today.”

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