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Five Digital Inclusion Trends in the United States

by Doug Kinkoph, Associate Administrator, Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications

This week, NTIA recognizes International Digital Inclusion Week. Digital inclusion is more than a social program giving people access to computing and information technology; it is now an economic imperative in every community. The availability of robust Internet access is integral to a community’s ability to thrive socially and economically. Better connected towns, cities and states attract technology-based investment, encourage more innovation, streamline supply chains, and broaden opportunities for individuals and businesses. Local leaders at all levels find that broadband planning and investments reap benefits across the economy in education, healthcare, agriculture, transportation, tourism, and daily quality of life.

Early this year, I had an opportunity to represent the United States at the International Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference in Liverpool, England. The conference afforded NTIA the opportunity to highlight several important trends that are driving broadband access and digital inclusion in the United States. We see policy and economic initiatives at the federal, state and local level around well-structured planning, program integration, library modernization, and performance measurement. Underlying these trends is the drive to streamline regulation and create the incentive for broadband infrastructure investment.

Digital Inclusion Planning. More governments and coalitions are creating city-wide, regional and state-wide broadband and digital inclusion planning programs. Many of these plans include dedicated staff, grant programs, and outcome-based measurement.

Chicago and Philadelphia pioneered the creation of citywide digital inclusion coalitions. Today, cities, towns, counties and states across the country are bringing stakeholders together, assessing needs and assets, establishing a vision and building operating plans to implement programs and measure results.  The Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion is working to make sure each household in the metropolitan area has access to the Internet, the equipment needed to use it, and the skills necessary to use it effectively. The Charlotte (North Carolina) Digital Inclusion Alliance created a Digital Inclusion Playbook to share actionable strategies for improving digital access and skills.

For our part, NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Technical Assistance team works directly with communities on digital inclusion planning and strategy and recently published a quick reference guide on our website, Connectivity with a Purpose: Considerations for Planning Digital Inclusion Efforts.

Program Integration. NTIA has been a strong champion for including broadband as an eligible expense across other federal funding streams. Federal agencies understand that broadband access and digital literacy are important aspects of their missions, so they are including broadband and digital inclusion as “eligible expenses” in government programs and funding streams. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that new public housing units include wiring for broadband. HUD created the ConnectHOME program and partnered with the organization EveryoneOn to help residents in participating communities connect to the Internet. Within the Department of Commerce, as part of its economic development programs, the Economic Development Agency identified broadband as an eligible expense and launched efforts to invest in broadband under its disaster relief efforts. In North Carolina, the State Library and NC Department of Information Technology partnered to address the homework gap by providing hotspots, offering digital literacy training and working with local families. At local level, Charlotte  has created a digital inclusion alliance that brings together the City, the County, the public school system, the libraries and a number of non-profit organizations to reduce the digital divide from 19% to 9% by 2026 by creating a operational plan that focuses on providing access to technology, digital literacy, and create opportunity for Mecklenburg county residents.

Library Modernization. The United States is fortunate to have a robust network of 9,000 public libraries with over 17,000 library outlets. There is a library in nearly every community in America and many of those libraries offer free computer access and digital literacy training. According to a study conducted by the Institute of Museums and Library Services, 99.9% of public libraries provide free access to computers and the Internet; 99.5% provide digital literacy training and support; and 95% provide employment and work force training. Libraries are also running computer coding boot-camps, providing 3D printing, and lending out WiFi hotspots, which allows patrons to connect to the Internet using wireless services. New York City pioneered the hotspot lending program and now has 10,000 devices that people check out just like books. New York partnered with the Kansas State Library to help bring the program into rural communities. WiFi hotspot lending is just as successful and important in Coffeyville and Sabetha, Kansas as it is in Manhattan.

The trend is clear: libraries are community hubs for digital access, research, and content creation. Partnering with libraries and other community-based nonprofits is a great way for digital inclusion coalitions to reach people where they live and work. BroadbandUSA recently released a new library infographic about the important connectivity role libraries play in their communities.

Performance Measurement. Part and parcel with the trend in structured planning, we also see a trend in measuring program performance through data collection and research. Measurement is important at the beginning of a program to assess gaps and needs and to size up assets and opportunities, but it is also essential as programs develop and change.

Performance measurement requires access to data. At the federal level, our marquis survey is NTIA’s Computer and Internet Survey. We conduct this survey every two years, reaching over 123,000 Americans in approximately 52,000 households. While the 2017 data shows gains in many areas with 72% of Americans over the age of 15 using the Internet at home, the survey also highlighted persistent divides. The most significant differences are based on geography and income: 65% of rural Americans use the Internet at home compared to almost 73% of urban residents; 54% of those with family incomes less than $25,000 used the Internet at home compared with 82% of Americans with family incomes of $100,000 or more. You can download the dataset yourself or use our Data Explorer tool to look at trends on the devices people use, where they access the Internet, concerns on privacy, and what people do online, by state, by year, by age, or by a number of other parameters.

States and localities as well have planned or completed new surveys. North Carolina used the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and their own data to map broadband adoption statewide as part of their State Broadband Plan. The City of Seattle created a new indicator framework  that looks at the structural, organizational, and individual outcomes associated with their programs and investments. These surveys demonstrate the benefit of corralling data to correlate objectives with results and outcomes.

In January, BroadbandUSA will host a Practical Conversations webinar on Measuring the Digital Divide: Review of Recent Surveys and Data to explore available datasets and how they can be used for performance measurement. Look for registration information on the BroadbandUSA website.

Leveraging Assets. In many areas of the country, broadband Internet access is a given, whether wireless or wireline, but there are too many areas of the United States, particularly rural areas, still lacking access to broadband service of any kind. Digital inclusion relies on community investment in broadband infrastructure. The Trump administration early on identified this broadband gap as a priority goal for the United States, issuing an Executive Order to make federal assets available to support rural broadband deployment and to streamline federal permitting processes and an Executive Order establishing the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity “to ensure the informed exercise of regulatory authority that impacts agriculture and rural communities.”

NTIA leverages federal assets to incentivize private investment through the Broadband Interagency Working Group (BIWG), chaired by NTIA Assistant Secretary David Redl along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. BIWG brings together the expertise and reach of two dozen federal agencies to identify ways to streamline processes, leverage federal assets, and maximize the impact of federal funding. State and local governments are also working to streamline permitting, leverage assets, and build effective partnerships with telecommunications companies.

In summary, the trends are clear. Closing the digital divide and laying the foundation for digital inclusion starts with clearly articulated objectives and plans, infused with adequate staffing and funding. This approach enables communities to attract necessary expertise and to share, learn and integrate programs as necessary at the local, regional and state level. Local libraries and community-based nonprofits and educational institutions are serving as centers of digital expertise and access hubs. Many communities are using performance measurement and data collection to enhance the effectiveness and reach of their programs. Lastly, communities are taking advantage of regional and federal assets to attract broadband infrastructure investment.

NTIA’s BroadbandUSA team remains committed to helping communities meet their digital inclusion goals. To find out more about our Technical Assistance services, please visit our BroadbandUSA website.