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Digital Exclusion is What’s Really Happening, Here’s How We Can Fix It

Digital Inclusion Week is a time to examine the perils of digital “exclusion.” What does it mean for everyone from children to small, rural business owners to be excluded from this digital world?

105n Icon Tag Full Red Rev 300x300(May 11, 2018) - As we wrap up the official Digital Inclusion Week (May 7-11), it’s a great time to celebrate our successes as nonprofits dedicated to ensuring that all people have access to high-speed internet and its related tools to meaningfully engage with the internet.

At Connected Nation we are so committed to this mission of digital inclusion that we remind ourselves every day via our mission and name that Everyone Belongs in a Connected Nation. Since we began fighting for digital inclusion at the turn of the century, we have seen tremendous progress across the nation. According to the Pew Research Center which has studied digital inclusion since 2000, we have made great strides in increasing adoption of the internet in the US.

When Pew began to track the trends in 2000, only half of US residents were adopting the internet. Today nearly 90 percent of U.S. residents are adopting the internet even if only about 70 percent have access to broadband at home

The Perils of Digital Exclusion
Pew Graph 1 300x221However, Digital Inclusion Week is indeed also a time to examine the perils of digital “exclusion.” What does it mean to be excluded from this digital revolution?

Wendy Lazarus, who serves on Connected Nation’s Board of Directors, addressed this issue earlier this week in a blog titled Digital Exclusion: A New Form of Student Segregation. She brilliantly tackles the issue of “homework gap” and the way it disproportionally impacts children of color. This digital exclusion is troubling because it limits access to the resources and the time needed to acquire the skills awarded by new technology. It also stifles their opportunities “to grow beyond their immediate surroundings and economic limitations.”

While Lazarus addresses digital exclusion, particularly for minority children, this issue can also be explored by income level, age and rural/urban divide. Explore Pew’s data on patterns on internet and home broadband adoption here.

Digital Exclusion of Small Businesses in Rural Areas
Let’s take a moment to focus on rural areas where broadband access is at about 60 percent.  Think for a second – what economic opportunities are small rural businesses missing by not having access or adopting high-speed internet.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation “many of the latest yield maximizing farming techniques require broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers.”  These techniques and broadband-enabled technologies allow the farmers to be more efficient and achieve optimal yield. Rural farmers and other small, rural business owners are at an extreme disadvantage without access to broadband. They are excluded from many opportunities including the following:

  • The ability to expand a customer base via an online presence that provides an opportunity to reach global customer base via a website, social media, and email marketing. With about 90 percent of U.S. residence adopting the internet, it is essential for a business to meet customers where they are – on the internet.

  • Increased efficiency and cost savings enabled by accessing tools and resources that are available such as credit card terminals, point of sale systems, accounting systems, etc. This renders them unable to compete with businesses with an online presence.

  • The ability to make connections and create alliances/associations with businesses in a similar industry. In a connected world these relationships are key to progressing a business.

  • Access Collaboration tools for remote workforce such as a virtual, chat-based workspace that allows team members to chat, call, save documents and collaborate in real-time, without restraint.

Clearly lack of access to broadband is a critical barrier to growth for small rural businesses in a digital economy and there is still much work to be done.

What can be done?
This week Connected Nation staff articulated various steps that can help to bridge the infrastructure gaps for rural areas. The first step is identifying those areas that need broadband investment:

“By improving data and mapping practices, legislators and regulators can use sound public policy to understand where unserved areas are and work to close the persistent service availability gaps in rural America. Through ubiquitous broadband access, digital inclusion may become a reality; because everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.” Lindsay Conrad, Director of Public Policy, Connected Nation.

“Increasing the granularity of broadband data helps close the Digital Divide by accurately identifying the gaps in service; then these areas can be made eligible for federal subsidies, grant/loan programs, and other expansion opportunities.” Ashley Hitt, Director of GIS Services, Connected Nation.

Once those areas are identified, public and private investments should be directly in those areas. The following funds are currently available and highlighted by Lindsay Conrad, Director of Public Policy, Connected Nation in her blog entitled Good Public Policy Can Move the Needle.

  • FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) will provide up to $1.98 billion in subsidies for broadband buildout to rural areas over 10 years.

  • FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II which will make up to $4.53 billion in support available over 10 years for primarily rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G LTE.

  • The recent $1.3 trillion congressional omnibus bill to fund the government this year included $600 million to fund rural broadband deployment through a new pilot program to be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS)

Deployment of infrastructure is a major milestone in getting rural communities to access, adopt, and use broadband. These efforts would have to be coupled with training, outreach and awareness activities that function as guide to effectively navigating the internet for new adopters.

Ultimately getting the excluded to be included not only takes policy considerations, but the work of non-profits, schools, community organizations, business and public and private entities to get everyone online.

Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

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About the Author:  Heather Gate is the Director of Digital Inclusion for Connected Nation. She is responsible for strategy development and implementation of programs that impact Digital Inclusion for all people in all places. She provides project management services including identification of program challenges and goals as well as day-to-day oversight and funding research.  Heather also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE).