When President Obama recently announced the ConnectHome initiative in the auditorium of Oklahoma’s Durant High School, he again stated that the Internet is a necessity, not a luxury.
No kidding, Mr. President.
This isn’t news to anyone. For most people, the Internet is key to basic life functions: correspondence; applications for jobs, college, and benefits; Facebook stalking your friends’ friends’ friends, expressing yourself with 90’s TV show gifs; and participating in the oh-so-enlightened conversations occurring on message boards everywhere.
Although I jest, lack of Internet access is a serious barrier for many low-income families, and its consequences are very real: students who have broadband at home achieve higher graduation rates than those who do not; high speed Internet access is strongly associated with greater economic development for communities; and the Internet is a critical prerequisite for accessing a huge proportion of job applications. I spent the past year studying how these folks use public computing resources in Chicago, and I can tell you that having access at home, work, school, or a public center really changes what opportunities are available to you.
But none of this matters because everyone has smartphones now, right? Problem solved. Except that you can’t write essays, craft a resume, do your taxes, or animate, analyze, and code anything worthwhile on your phone. And sure enough, the effects of these limitations show: mobile-only Internet users have lower digital skill levels than people with access to desktops.
And although the proportion of people who do not have Internet in some capacity at home or work has been reduced to an all-time low, the consequences for those who remain excluded have multiplied because the vast majority of institutions provide services in a way that assumes online access. This is very bad news for the quarter of Americans who don’t have decent broadband at home.
All this being said, the ConnectHome initiative, while great for the 275,000 families it serves, won’t even make a dent in the approximately 95 million people who need it. If we’re going to have a national conversation about digital skills and Internet access, then let’s recognize that while ConnectHome and mobile Internet access play important roles in filling the critical gaps in services for our most vulnerable families, the overwhelming need for Internet, devices, support, and training in underserved communities requires a broader strategy.
We’ve been here before: policymakers did attempt to address these digital disparities in the Recovery Act after the 2008 recession. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) invested $4.7 billion dollars in broadband access and adoption, including $201 million in Public Computer Center grants to fund 3,500 new and upgraded public computer centers across the country.
For a lot of communities, these types of public computer labs are where low-income individuals who lack Internet go to get the technology and training they need. Labs are located in public housing, senior centers, schools, health clinics, community technology centers, and most importantly, public libraries, who are the real MVPs of Internet access in America, despite the massive cuts many systems have faced.
These public computer centers are heavily relied upon: for example, my research suggests that half of their 80,000 weekly users in Chicago—more than one-third of whom have incomes of under $10,000—use public computer centers every day. And, the most recent available data clocked the average wait time in about two-thirds of Chicago Public Libraries at more than three hours. And that’s a problem for users, especially low-income households, who don’t have that kind of time to wait around to access basic services. And, centers and their support staffs are doing so much more than providing Internet and computers: they’re teachers, curators of learning resources, amateur social service referrers, homework helpers, and job search coaches.
The value of public computer centers goes beyond technology itself. For teenage users in Chicago, 88 percent reported that they performed better in school through center use and one-third reported that the computer centers made them feel safer because they were off the streets. For Chicago adult users, 58 percent were looking for jobs and 37 percent of all respondents said the Chicago centers had helped them find a job, due in part to staff assistance.
These centers were dealt a huge setback when BTOP’s funding ended in 2013. Now, without a dedicated source of funding, every budget year is a battle to prevent cuts or underfunding. And, when we fail to invest in libraries and public computer centers, they are forced to cut staff and training programs or close altogether. Until the next generation of wireless provision produces better, cheaper alternatives, it’s critical that we financially support these libraries and public computer centers on a far broader scale than ConnectHome.
It’s time to think seriously and creatively about how to fund systemic, sustainable changes to get low-income households connected to the resources they need—in every community.