Commentary: Congressional action can help close the digital divide

By Cynthia E. Shermeyer
Posted 7/21/21

I vividly remember how anxious I felt as state governments began to roll out stay-at-home orders in response to growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. I knew it would mean shutting down …

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Commentary: Congressional action can help close the digital divide

Posted

I vividly remember how anxious I felt as state governments began to roll out stay-at-home orders in response to growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. I knew it would mean shutting down Literacy Delaware’s in-person program, which, for 38 years, has offered tutoring/classes for adults committed to improving their literacy skills. Even if we could offer online tutoring, as we did, how many of our adult learners would actually be able to continue their studies? I knew that for many of them, as well as other families living at or below the poverty level, the transition to a virtual environment would not be easy.

Realizing the need to address technology inequities highlighted by the pandemic, our government worked to increase broadband access and affordability. The Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers raised the limit on vouchers from $9.25 to $50 for qualifying low-income families to help pay for broadband. This action increased access, though this additional financial benefit is only temporary. School districts and nonprofits around the country, including our program, distributed Chromebooks to adults and families who had no devices or only smartphones.

The digital divide seemed to be closing — or was it?

The Biden administration and Congress are working to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will provide broadband access to all, modeling a similar past effort to provide electricity to every American as part of the New Deal. Unfortunately, this bill will not comprehensively address the challenges of using technology many in our country face. Instead of looking at the digital divide through an equity lens, we need to consider it through an inclusion lens. The Institute of Museum and Library Services defines digital inclusion as “the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and communication technologies. Digital inclusion encompasses not only access to the Internet but also the availability of hardware and software; relevant content and services; and training for the digital literacy skills required for effective use of information and communication technologies.”

The first step toward digital inclusion is to make sure everyone can get online — permanently. Prioritize high-speed internet for communities that lack the infrastructure currently. No one should have to go without broadband simply because of where they live. Second is to fund a permanent broadband benefit program, so low-income families can access broadband affordably.

The federal government helps low-income families afford groceries and health care. In the 21st century, it’s time for the government to similarly treat internet access as essential. Furthermore, we cannot simply offer the technical tools. An integral part of ensuring digital inclusion is education and training in digital literacy skills, especially for adults.

Thirty-two million Americans are not digitally literate. Digital literacy skills go beyond manipulating a mouse or sending an email but include using technology to find information and to solve problems. To “build back better” in our digital world, our government must direct funding to address not only affordable broadband access and securing proper devices, but also, and most importantly, support digital literacy skills training.

Marshaling resources, Literacy Delaware and the Delaware Division of Libraries are pioneering partners in an effort to champion digital inclusion in Delaware, not only by providing computer and Wi-Fi access to adults and families in marginalized communities throughout the state but by offering the Northstar Digital Literacy program for achieving digital literacy skills.

Americans have long held that an informed citizenry is paramount to our democracy. The 21st century demands digital inclusiveness. Congress has the power to help our citizens achieve this goal by prioritizing digital literacy, alongside connecting underserved communities and funding a permanent broadband benefit.

Cynthia E. Shermeyer is executive director of Literacy Delaware.