Broadband access is no longer optional

This summer’s march on Washington reminds us that the mission of the civil rights movement is constantly evolving. And in this gilded information age, getting everyone connected to broadband Internet has now become part of the movement’s bulwark. The president’s plan to wire 99 percent of U.S. schools is a much-needed part of the solution; but until we get everyone connected at home, the digital divide will remain.

Subscribing to broadband is no longer optional: 80 percent of U.S. jobs will require digital fluency within the next 10 years, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept only electronic job applications, and nearly every aspect of college life has moved online. But today, African-American and Hispanic families lag 10 to 20 percentage points behind whites in broadband adoption.

Closing the “at-home” divide is complicated. Most non-adopters say they just don’t see broadband as valuable. Others lack the digital literacy necessary to navigate the Internet’s vast possibilities. The cost of computers and broadband service can also be an issue, but it’s not the most important one.

Two years ago, the FCC teamed with Comcast, the nation’s largest broadband provider, to initiate the biggest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide. The undertaking, known as Internet Essentials, offers heavily discounted broadband service at $9.95 a month and a computer for just $150 to families with a child eligible for the federal school lunch program. There are approximately 134,000 such families in the Atlanta area.

Internet Essentials also offers to teach participants state-of-the-art digital skills..

The program is unique because it not only addresses the major barrier to adoption — demonstrating relevance of broadband and teaching the skills to use it — but because of the cost-saving incentives it offers. The program virtually eliminates the most oft-cited barriers to non-adoption without using scarce public funds.

That combination has made this one of the most successful digital divide initiatives ever tried. One million Americans have joined, 86 percent use the Internet daily, and more than half use it for work and two-thirds, to access government information and services.

But no good deed goes unpunished. A few outlier critics have claimed the program hasn’t gone far enough. Others don’t like the idea of public-private partnerships, no matter how much good they deliver.

We need every idea on the table to solve this problem. That means scaling up what works. But it’s going to take a village. The digital divide took years of neglect to open so wide; it will take years of hard work to close.

Hilary O. Shelton is NAACP Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy.