Is the Digital Divide Hindering Economic Mobility?
By Zion Campbell, state and local policy intern
As of 2017, 20 percent of African Americans and 12 percent of white Americans didn’t have a broadband internet subscription. The Federal Communications Commission defines Broadband Internet as a high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access.
Partnering with ConnectHomeUSA — a federal initiative to close the digital divide for HUD-assisted housing residents, Enterprise Advisors was contracted by HUD to organize a 2019 convening to facilitate conversations with over 45 Housing Authorities from across the country tackling this work. Taking place in late October 2019, the ConnectHomeUSA Summit provided attendees the opportunity to meet with corporate partners, learn from best practices and strategize program development to increase resident access to the internet, devices and digital literacy/educational content.
Many residents in HUD-assisted housing are finding that applying for jobs, maintaining contact with employers, workforce development training and other basic aspects of employment are increasingly Internet based— leaving those without access or only intermittent access at a serious disadvantage. Other challenges include managing unemployment benefits, citizenship or changes in residency status, housing benefits or childcare stipends which are becoming more electronic based than ever before. The shift to online services represents a huge challenge for many social service recipients, and it disproportionately affects people of a modest means.
Education is continuously becoming more technology-based with students as young as elementary school being required to submit assignments online or complete projects that require some sort of online research. Going home after school and not being able to get assignments and projects done because of lack of access can hinder students' success in the classroom. Education is a segue to economic mobility and students should have that Internet accessibility in order to complete college applications or look into job opportunities. ConnectHomeUSA is actively trying to bridge that gap by connecting communities with laptop providers and increased internet access programs.
Small business owners are also feeling the heat with lack of access to broadband giving them little room to grow their business. Broadband is needed to research the requirements to acquire a small business license, compliance ordinances, potential employee profiles, connecting with clients and various other tools needed to develop one’s business. Sufficient internet connectivity is essential for these businesses to thrive in a continuously growing market. Without access, these business owners fall severely further behind their competition and their households could potentially suffer financial hardships due to the lack of income flowing from their business.
A 2017 Census report notes that 22 percent of households in urban areas don’t have a Broadband internet subscription. On the flip side 28 percent of rural households are also opting out of a subscription. Pew Research Center put out a report stating the main reasons households are opting out of purchasing a subscription is its high monthly price, the ability to do the same things with a smartphone and other options outside of the home to access internet. However, smartphones are not meant for writing term papers, applying for scholarships or financial aid applications, which can all be time consuming projects more conducive for laptops or desktop computers.
One way we’re thinking about our work on this issue is through Enterprise Advisors continued work in partnership with ConnectHome to provide technical assistance to Housing Authorities across the country.
Most recently Advisors has been providing Technical Assistance (TA) in San Antonio, TX to the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) helping them work through the best ways to bring Broadband Access to their communities. So far 700+ units have been connected to a hotspot and Wi-Fi, hoping to advance these numbers they’re specifically looking into mesh network technology and solar power as potential solutions. Advisors is focused on helping them use data to measure the impact Broadband Access has on its communities in the hopes of focusing on exactly what these communities need and are lacking while also garnering funding support. The overall ConnectHome TA across communities nationally is pertinent to the continued advancement of this work, hopefully pushing the country further towards digital inclusion.
The significance and necessity of having Broadband Access today is so major and we hope the government can help elevate this work further by providing funding and the continued resources needed to help close the gap. Enterprise is proud to be working with HUD on this issue and is excited to continue uplifting this work.