By Elizabeth Lindsey, Executive Director of Byte Back
A Byte Back student finishes class at 3 p.m. He stays in our organization’s converted DC house computer lab until the last tutoring session ends at 8 p.m. and our doors close. He’s studying for a computer networking exam, taking advantage of something he doesn’t have at home — internet.
At Byte Back, an 18-year-old DC digital inclusion nonprofit, we’ve seen thousands of students struggle because of lack of resources, including internet. This month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that through an expansion of the Lifeline program millions of people will have the chance to get affordable home broadband. Byte Back’s clients — underserved DC residents, many of whom are experiencing poverty and unemployment — will be among the beneficiaries.
The Lifeline expansion is a huge milestone in a path to making internet access a right, not a privilege. Through experience, though, Byte Back knows that internet access will be the most effective solution to the digital divide when combined with access to devices and training.
Byte Back students are proof that the digital divide is about more than a gap in internet access. Hundreds of adult computer literacy students each year leave our classes finally knowing how to Google and send an email. These are skills that so many assume are a given today; they’re not.
The FCC’s announcement on Lifeline only loosely references the other two essential elements — device access and training. We hope this reference will expand into clear plans and funding to address these needs in conjunction with broadband expansion. In this way, it will be clear that those who have been marginalized in our communities are worthy of full digital inclusion, with digital tools in their reach and the training to use them.
The burden of cost has caused the digital divide to spread contagiously to so many areas. Children (and adults like our students) experience a “homework gap,” as educational opportunities halt at the school door, where internet signals stop. Adults who face underemployment and unemployment don’t have access to the most useful tool when searching for a job — a computer with internet access.
In households making over $150,000, it’s rare not to have internet, with 95 percent connected, according to the FCC. Comparatively, about 40 percent of households making less than $25,000 (the cutoff to qualify for Lifeline) remain offline.
The converted house that holds Byte Back’s certification classrooms is in the area of Washington, DC with the majority of the poorest residents, east of the Anacostia River. This is where most people in the District will be able to take advantage of Lifeline’s $9.25-per-month broadband service starting in December. Out of pocket, the cost of high-speed internet in DC is about $50 per month, according to WhiteFence.com.
The digital divide keeps those living in poverty where they are, in poverty. Meanwhile, those with internet privilege have seen their potential for success blossom exponentially. If the Lifeline program could be expanded even further in the future, increasing the household income limit to $30,000, many more individuals making less than living wages could take advantage.
Byte Back programs are driven by the fact that education is empowering, that being able to attach your resume to an email (on a basic level) and being able to write an Excel formula or repair computer hardware (on an advanced level) are skills that lift people out of poverty. We’re hopeful the FCC will make access to training a priority and that this element will make the Lifeline expansion even more impactful.
Internet access may build a bridge across the digital divide, but what pulls people across the bridge is education. Access is a lot, but we can’t view it as the end.
Elizabeth Lindsey is the executive director of Byte Back, a community nonprofit providing computer training, access to technology, and career services to underserved adults in Washington, DC.