What will it take for low-income individuals to cross over the digital divide?

By: Courtney Lyles, PhD

In 2017, the city and county of San Francisco made the news by launching their vision for municipal fiber for all residents. And this was an important step for closing the digital divide, given that current commercial broadband options in SF were deemed outdated, not expansive enough, and too expensive. I believe this approach to creating a comprehensive grid of connectivity will be a model for many other local governments to emulate, and we can’t move forward on many fronts without this step. But I also am left feeling like it might not be enough.

Over the past few years, I have worked on understanding how to encourage diverse patients at ZSFG to use existing health technologies, such as online portals to access their medical records and commercial mobile apps to manage their chronic conditions. And I have learned a lot, especially within the context of healthcare systems and related to the wide variation in current Internet use patterns among our patients despite similar socioeconomic status. But I have also been fortunate to meet digital literacy experts outside of the traditional healthcare settings, including leaders from local government, public and medical libraries, community-based organizations serving older individuals and those with disabilities, and educators specializing in adult learning strategies through groups like the SF Tech Council and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Through these multi-sectoral discussions, I have learned tremendously about the complex intersection of ideas/issues related to digital literacy. It is clear that the meaningful use of technology in any individual’s life is built upon three essential factors: a) Internet connectivity (especially at home), b) device ownership, and c) interest and skills. And it seems to me there isn’t enough thoughtful coordination between these interconnected factors to make rapid and profound progress in closing the digital divide.

Obviously the decision for municipal fiber could greatly impact Internet uptake for vulnerable SF residents, especially if it is offered at a subsided price for low-income residents. There are also federal/state programs that offer low-cost devices (usually affordable Android smartphones with some lower cost data packages) as a part of the longstanding Lifeline program, as well as businesses that have already agreed to offer home Internet connectivity at lower prices, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program for broadband at $10/month for low-income and senior populations. Similarly, public libraries and community/senior centers continue to provide free and publicly available support for underserved individuals, which includes digital literacy skill-building in some cases.

Yet Internet connectivity tends to get the most attention within the discussion about the digital divide. For example, the decision for municipal fiber in San Francisco was largely driven by a survey estimate that more than 100,000 residents currently lack Internet connectivity at home, and connectivity is often assumed as the major driving factor. But these survey data aren’t sufficient to tease apart the nuances between Internet connectivity, device ownership, and digital literacy skills. Similarly, the overall lack of attention on digital skill-building is somewhat confirmed by the under-utilization of existing low-cost programs for device ownership and Internet connectivity, not to mention generally cumbersome enrollment processes as well as a lack of effective marketing strategies to reach eligible individuals. So in order for municipal fiber to be truly successful, the leaders in SF should therefore ensure that their program explicitly addresses a) device/hardware ownership (including computers/tablets but also hardware such as Wifi routers) and b) broad scale awareness-building and in-depth technical assistance and training to help more individuals get online. In particular, the woefully under-resourced programs for Internet training and digital literacy support need more attention, as the existing non-profits and libraries are generally not able to provide the longitudinal and personalized support needed to build all the essential skills personalized to each learner.

The national trends in Internet use demonstrate a persistent digital divide, especially among low-income individuals. I am very excited by the plans for municipal fiber in SF, and I believe this is the moment to call for a greater investment in digital skill-building at the same time.