Digital divide slows education and jobs

Statistics about broadband adoption and the “digital divide” paint a distressing picture in metro Atlanta and throughout the nation. According to government figures, nearly 30 percent of Americans lack Internet access at home — even though service has been built out to three-quarters of those people’s homes.

In Atlanta, where Comcast offers broadband service to 99 percent of our footprint, high-income neighborhoods like Buckhead have 80 to 100 percent of homes subscribing to broadband. But in lower-income areas such as South Atlanta, the adoption rate is 20 to 40 percent, or even lower.

The research clearly shows why: A lack of digital literacy — not understanding the value of the Internet, or fear of the Internet — is the major barrier, while roughly 20 percent point to the cost of computers and Internet access as their primary deterrent.

Given the critical importance of the Internet and all the opportunity it has to offer, this gap between “haves” and “have nots” should be unacceptable. The Internet’s wealth of resources is vital to education and workforce development. Students, employees and job seekers need access to stay competitive and to perform everyday tasks, like doing homework and research, using social media and paying bills.

Nearly 80 percent of students are asked to access homework assignments online, and 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept only online applications. In the educational context, new digital learning tools promise to enrich learning in the classroom, which is why the President’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99 percent of the schools in America to high-speed Internet service in five years is so critical. But school-based Internet service isn’t enough; advanced digital learning also requires Internet access at home.

At Comcast, we are forging community partnerships to bridge the digital divide through a program we just relaunched in Atlanta called Internet Essentials. It is offered to families with at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Internet Essentials is also available to parochial, private, cyberschool and home-schooled students. Last week, we announced that Internet Essentials has connected more than 1 million low-income Americans, or 250,000 families, to broadband service at home, most for the first time. More than 14,000 of these families are in metro Atlanta area, one of the program’s strongest performing cities.

Internet Essentials addresses myriad barriers such as cost, digital literacy and the perceived lack of relevance of online content. The program offers free digital literacy training in print, online and in-person, as well as low-cost broadband service (at $9.95 a month) and the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for $150. Alongside our local partners, we have trained more than 20,000 low-income Americans in basic Internet skills since the inception of the Internet Essentials program.

That’s a good start, but clearly there is more work to be done to bridge the digital divide in metro Atlanta and across the country.

David L. Cohen is executive vice president of Comcast Corp.

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