Promote Digital Inclusion and Skills Training

Learning Objective

Understand the importance of digital inclusion and skills training to community broadband initiatives, how communities can execute digital inclusion and skills training programs, and leverage those programs to facilitate community adoption of broadband service.

Overview

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital inclusion as activities that “promote access to affordable high-speed broadband, appropriate devices, digital literacy training and tech support for the community’s underserved residents.”[1] In addition to a lack of available broadband service options, rural community-members often face the challenge of understanding and accessing the benefits of reliable, high-speed internet service. Digital inclusion and skills training can help community-members understand how to navigate the internet and utilize internet-enabled devices, access education and employment opportunities, and manage basic services, such as utilities and healthcare, digitally. Digital inclusion efforts can help community-broadband initiatives holistically address barriers to broadband adoption rooted in education, economics, and technology to strengthen the social equity and financial sustainability of their projects. Broadband development projects that include digital inclusion initiatives are more likely to achieve the project’s socioeconomic outcomes and foster a better business environment for ISPs by increasing the number of potential subscribers in the area. Many municipalities like Kansas City, MO and Austin, TX have created their own digital inclusion plans that center around the themes of affordability, device availability, education.

[1] The Digital Inclusion Coalition Guidebook, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 2018, Pg 6, https://www.coalitions.digitalinclusion.org/pdfs/NDIA%20Coalition%20Guidebook%20V1.2%20%28Print%29.pdf

The LDD Role

Local Development Districts’ can utilize experience leading community engagement and awareness, and workforce development initiatives to spur digital inclusion efforts in their region as part of a broadband development project. LDDs can convene and mobilize stakeholders to develop and deploy digital inclusion and skills training that meet community needs. LDDs can share best practices and lead partnerships that address challenges to digital and broadband equity in underserved communities. LDDs can also leverage their connections with the business community to deploy digital literacy and skills training directly aimed at helping small business owners adopt broadband technologies. This could include leveraging broadband to develop e-commerce opportunities, deploy networked Industry 4.0 technologies, and offer digital services, such as telework, telemedicine, and tele-education.


[1] The Digital Inclusion Coalition Guidebook, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 2018, Pg 6, https://www.coalitions.digitalinclusion.org/pdfs/NDIA%20Coalition%20Guidebook%20V1.2%20%28Print%29.pdf

Getting Started

Broadband development projects should utilize community-level data on internet access and adoption, and economic and social conditions to target digital inclusion initiatives towards advancing equity. Projects can combine data on connectivity gathered from secondary data or public surveys and focus groups with regional socioeconomic data to reveal which populations or communities would benefit most from digital inclusion activities. Communities can include questions in connectivity surveys asking residents to report their greatest barriers to internet adoption in order to guide the development of digital inclusion programming. Survey-questions can evaluate how residents and businesses currently use the internet and evaluate opportunities for stakeholders to improve their quality of life or business operations through internet access. Incorporating community feedback into digital literacy activities helps ensure funds are directed to programming that is relevant and impactful to the community.

Digital literacy activities will most likely be driven by members of a broadband committee most engaged in community outreach and education efforts. Many non-profits, education organizations, and anchor institutions already involved in digital inclusion programming. Broadband development projects should prioritize the identification of existing digital inclusion activities that align with strategic objectives to support internet adoption and can be scaled up to meet community-needs.

Case Study: Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Building community trust is a defining feature of a successful digital inclusion program. Community members, especially those that are most disadvantaged or isolated, may be suspicious of public awareness campaigns and informational material that comes solely from the broadband initiative or from a government entity with which they rarely interact. To illustrate this point, Mitchell pointed to Alabama’s plan to allocate CARES Act funding dollars to consumer broadband subsidies for students from low-income households. Many residents who received written material about the plan were skeptical of its authenticity and disregarded the program.

General and project-specific broadband information is more likely to be heeded if it comes from community institutions that are well-known and enjoy broad public trust. Officials from local school districts and libraries frequently offer the best avenues for disseminating broadband initiative-related materials and coordinating digital inclusion programming. This idea also extends not only to digital inclusion and education initiatives, but to other community engagement aspects of a broadband project such as connectivity surveys.

Promoting Affordable Internet Access

Broadband affordability and residents’ ability and willingness to pay for service is one of the most persistent barriers to adoption of high-speed internet service.[1][2] Broadband development projects should consider the affordability of service at the center of their efforts and when negotiating partnerships with internet service providers. The Alliance for Affordable Internet defines affordable broadband as being less than 5% of a family’s monthly income – when surveying the community, projects should consider that 50% of residents earn below the median income level.[3] Broadband development projects can also promote participation of low-income individuals in programs designed to subsidize the cost of internet service for qualifying consumers. Available programs to subsidize the cost of internet service and broadband-enabled devices are dependent on a community’s location and the income-level of families and individuals. Programs designed to increase the affordability of internet, such as the FCC’s long-running Lifeline program and the newly created Emergency Broadband Benefit, are available nationwide for qualifying households that already participate in federal support programs or are below an income threshold.

[1] Rhinesmith, Colin, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, 2016, Pg 5, https://www.benton.org/sites/default/files/broadbandinclusion.pdf

[2] https://itif.org/publications/2021/02/08/broadband-myths-are-high-broadband-prices-holding-back-adoption

[3] https://a4ai.org/affordable-internet-is-1-for-2

Best Practices

Publicize national programs that subsidize consumer adoption of broadband. While many grant programs to promote digital literacy are state or place-based, national programs can provide qualifying households with resources to pay for internet service or broadband-enabled devices. The FCC’s Lifeline program provides up to $9.25 a month to low-income households to help pay for an internet subscription.[1] The Emergency Broadband Benefit program, launched by the FCC in May of 2021, offers qualifying households up to $50 per month in broadband service subsidy and up to $100 towards the purchase of a device.[2] National support can also come from non-profit organizations like PCs for People, which refurbishes used devices and sells them at discounted costs to eligible individuals.

[1] Federal Communications Commission, “Lifeline Supports for Affordable Communications, https://www.fcc.gov/lifeline-consumers

[2] Federal Communications Commission, “Emergency Broadband Benefit,” https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit

Facilitating Ownership of Internet-Enabled Devices

Low-income residents in underserved communities may not have access to internet-enabled devices. Communities can provide free-to-use or free-to-rent computers and other internet-enabled devices at local anchor institutions and other community-spaces such as libraries, schools, and community colleges to ensure all community-members can access the internet. While anchor institutions can serve as a central location from which community-members can access the internet, people also want to be able to access the internet at their own home, at their convenience. Providing community-members with internet service to the premises promotes internet adoption and grows the service’s subscriber base, increasing the sustainability of the network. Some states have recognized the importance of equipping underserved community members with internet-enabled devices by implementing grant programs that support the purchase of internet-enabled devices. National programs centered around digital inclusion, such as the FCC’s newly created Emergency Broadband Benefit program include funding for internet-enabled devices in addition to consumer subsidies.

Developing Digital Literacy and Skills Training Programs

Experts and policymakers use the term ‘digital literacy’ skills refer to an individual’s ability to use information technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information.[1] These skills can range from utilizing search-engines to performing complex analysis with cloud services. Residents and businesses unfamiliar with the benefits of reliable, high-speed internet access may be resistant to the adoption of potentially costly internet options. These groups fail to develop digital literacy and skills because they fail to understand the potential benefit of internet adoption – which can range from improved quality of life to complete business transformation. Although the recent COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the health, education, economic, and social benefits of internet access, some residents and businesses may not find it relevant. Others may see the benefit in internet access but lack the opportunity and experience to realize the full benefits of internet access. Local digital literacy programming that educates residents on broadband’s capabilities and equips them with the skills necessary to effectively use the internet is widely recognized as a key to meaningful internet adoption.[2] Some states have developed programs to support the development of digital literacy and skills training programs. North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office offers the Building a New Digital Economy (BAND-NC) program, which provides “community innovation mini-grants” to fund the planning and implementation of digital inclusion projects that help communities realize the benefits of broadband.

Best Practices

Digital literacy training should go hand-in-hand with connectivity. Broadband consultant Tom Reid emphasized the importance of ensuring the availability of affordable internet access prior to deploying any digital inclusion efforts. Reid acknowledged the importance of education on digital literacy but cautioned that project leaders should make sure education campaigns go hand-in-hand with broadband access. “One of the things that really irritates people is when you come to tell them why they need the internet and the internet is not available… I would hold off too much on education unless you’re certain that there’s broadband [in the area].”[3]

Case Study Example: Building a New Digital Economy (BAND-NC) Program, North Carolina

North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office partnered with North Carolina State University Institute for Emerging Issues and the John M. Belk Endowment to create the Building a New Digital Economy (BAND-NC) program. This program provides ‘mini-grants’ to support digital inclusion initiatives. The program was so successful that a second round of program funding has been scheduled for July 2021. Programs that empower local initiatives, even with limited funding, have the potential to make meaningful inroads towards greater broadband adoption. If similar programs are not available, local broadband projects should consider raising the issue of digital inclusion with their elected officials and stress the importance of supporting such activities. Broadband development projects can additionally partner with education institutions to develop similar community-based programs.

[1] National Digital Inclusion Alliance, “Definitions,” https://www.digitalinclusion.org/definitions/#:~:text=NDIA%20recommends%20the%20American%20Library,both%20cognitive%20and%20technical%20skills.

[2] Rhinesmith, Colin, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, 2016, Pg 17, https://www.benton.org/sites/default/files/broadbandinclusion.pdf

[3] Tom Reid (Broadband Consultant, Reid Consulting Group contracted with Buckeye Hills Regional Council) interview with DDAA on February 4, 2021.