Five lessons in bridging the digital divide

Three years ago, Knight Foundation set out to find ways to bridge the digital divide in Detroit, a formidable task in a city where less than 40 percent of households have broadband access.

We approached the challenge by focusing on three, high poverty neighborhoods, and set out to fund a broadband network there in addition to digital literacy training.

What we discovered with this project could provide lessons on what works and what doesn’t for communities trying to digitally connect the 100 million Americans without home broadband access.

The insights are part of our new report on digital access in Detroit.  Written by journalist Fara Warner, it details the significant difficulties faced in installing a Wi-Fi network: one company considered building towers for free, but pulled out; another donated several towers but the signal didn’t, in the end, cover the entire area. 

Nonprofits and civic leaders seeking to close the digital divide in their communities should instead consider these major insights outlined in Warner’s report:

1)   Focus on Digital Literacy: If the report has one big conclusion it’s this: training on how to use the Internet is critical to closing the digital gap. Of the efforts on the ground, the digital literary courses held at local public libraries were the most effective elements in encouraging broadband adoption. In fact, after graduating from the courses, a majority of the participants chose to purchase Internet access immediately on the open market, instead of waiting for the free network. Through the training, many came to realize how integral the Internet had become to everyday tasks like paying bills, applying for jobs, searching for medical information and helping with kids’ homework, Warner writes.

2)   Provide computers: While digital literacy was key, free or low-cost computers removed another significant barrier in Detroit. (We were able to provide 1,700 through a donation from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.) In this case, the computers offered a good incentive for taking a digital literacy course, and maintaining skills. The participants’ children and extended family also benefitted. Participant Stephen Pitts, for example, an art teacher who suffered a head injury in a car accident, used his free laptop to brush up his painting skills through online training videos.

3)   Remove other financial barriers:  As Warner writes, Internet providers often require security deposits and a credit check before handing out equipment like routers and modems – making it harder for low-income Americans get service. Nonprofits should focus on finding a way to pay for those upfront costs.

4)   Low rates are still needed:  The average rate for monthly Internet access in Detroit is $30, still prohibitive for many in the city.

5)   Partner for success: A range of partnerships between local community organizations, private companies, libraries and government were essential to this project’s achievements, and included a federal stimulus grant that brought in additional funding, and the donated, refurbished laptops.

The release is particularly timely as the FCC starts to work out the deployment of the Knight-supported Connect to Compete broadband adoption program in cities across the country. The report shows that Connect to Compete’s work has the potential to bring more Americans online and into the global $8 trillion Web-enabled economy.

We hope other communities – particularly those signing on with the FCC to work on Connect to Compete – will read and learn from Detroit’s story.

Patel is Knight Foundation’s vice president for strategic assessment

Martinez, Knight’s director for IT, leads the foundation’s Universal Access Initiative

Reporter Analysis Series:

Connect Detroit is part of Knight Foundation’s reporter analysis series, where the foundation commissions independent journalists to write occasional articles reviewing its grant making and program strategies. Veteran reporters examine grant documents, conduct interviews and offer their perspective on the lessons learned and impact of Knight-supported projects in stories published online and in print.

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