Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bridging the Digital Divide

by Kaitlyn Snyder, National Housing Conference 

Last week I attended the Bridging the Digital Divide forum hosted by the Washington Post. The forum brought together lawmakers, city leaders, technology experts and entrepreneurs to examine obstacles to broadband adoption and highlight efforts across the country to close the digital divide. Attendees of note include HUD Secretary Juli√°n Castro, Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, Pa., Mayor Ivy Taylor of San Antonio, Texas and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Ill. This forum had two main takeaways regarding broadband adoption: the necessity of adopting a holistic approach and the power of collaboration. Programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Google Fiber’s partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin illustrate this holistic approach; Pittsburgh’s collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University is giving the city access to innovative uses for basic infrastructure, like streetlights.

What is the digital divide? Ninety-five percent of households with annual incomes above $150,000 subscribe to high speed internet while only 47 percent of households below the poverty line subscribe. This nearly 50 percent difference is the digital divide. This divide becomes even more pronounced when controlling for race/ethnicity, age and disability. NHC research demonstrates the need among extremely low income renters and the value, that “the availability of Internet access is associated with greater student achievement, improved health outcomes, and less social isolation, as well as with more robust economic growth.”

As policymakers and communities work on strategies to solve this digital divide, the forum highlighted that our approach cannot focus only on price; to be successful at closing the digital divide, our approach has to be holistic and include help accessing equipment and teaching digital literacy; otherwise, people will have access to something that they don’t know how to use or understand its potential benefit. As one example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials programs offers discounted Internet access program to low-income eligible families and also offers options to purchase a computer for less than $150 and digital literacy training. NHC has highlighted a similar partnership between the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and Google Fiber to connect residents in public housing to the Internet and also provide residents with digital literacy training and access to discounted equipment.

Efforts to close the digital divide can help build inclusive communities and achieve ‘tech-equity.’ One example is making government services easier to access and using data to track locations of snow plows and trash trucks so all residents can view levels of service. Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, Pa. gave an example of street lights that not only provide lighting but also act as a cellular tower that can be rented to make local revenue; that acts as a Wi-Fi connection to build a mesh net; as shot spotters where the lights will turn up and radio the police regarding shots fired. All of these advancements have been made possible through the city’s partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, and this partnership is allowing Pittsburgh to use technology to build safer, more accessible and more equitable communities.  

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