Live From NTC: Providing Computers Doesn’t Include Access

SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Diana Rodriguez recently returned from vacation in Cuba, where trying to get WiFi was a challenge to say the least. Access to broadband might not be as difficult in the United States but Rodriguez said there’s still a long way to go to bridge the digital divide.

Rodriguez was among a trio of panelists who took on the topic at Thursday morning’s plenary session, “Momentum for Change: Strategies for Achieving Digital Equity,” during the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#16NTC) at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif.

Rodriguez is director of digital learning and technology at the Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles, Calif. She challenged three myths to show that there’s still a way to go in bridging the digital divide:

* Everyone can get to a computer these days. The ultimate answer is getting computers into homes because otherwise, it’s not that easy to access, with people limited to the hours of the local library or computer centers.

* The answer lies in low-cost Internet offers. “There’s no silver bullet to getting folks to adopt. It’s not about price or contract terms, it’s a much more complex issues,” she said. For some, they will be able to subscribe at a lower cost but not necessarily others. “We need organizations like yours and mine, to keep digging deep within individuals in our community, figuring out how and how to get to them,” she said.

* Once a family has Internet access and a computer at home, the job is done. “It feels like the work you put in has been defeated,” Rodriguez said, when you follow up with a family after hours of training classes and finally getting them a computer but a virus has been downloaded or some other obstacle that leads it to not being used in months. “What kind of economic system can you set up for these folks so that once they adopt Internet service and computers at home, they have a full range of services to support and sustain it so it becomes a long-term behavior,” Rodriguez said.

When starting or re-evaluating digital inclusion programming, Rodriguez offered four key elements for nonprofits: Know who you’re serving; Know their needs; Know who else is serving them and reach out; and, Work together to devise a plan.

“I had better service in Sub-Saharan Africa than I did in my hometown,” said Connie Stewart. She is executive director at the California Center for Rural Policy (CCRP) at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., about seven hours north of San Jose and within 100 miles of the Oregon border. Communication is a fundamental human right not a luxury, she argued.

To those who suggest that rural residents just move to gain better broadband access, Stewart counters that those who live in urban areas — where food isn’t grown — should move. “It’s not just, you can’t watch Netflix tonight because some yahoo with a backhoe cut a fiber optic line,” she said. When Internet access is knocked out, banks close, retailers accept cash only, hospitals can’t send X-rays, and airlines can’t check-in passengers.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to bridging the rural digital divide,” Stewart said. “You can’t do a lot of things if your technology is not symmetrical.”

Broadband speeds have the power to impact the economy, what kids can do in school and what can be done medically. Low speeds mean that “you don’t want to talk to us, you just want to send your message,” Stewart said.

Many tribal lands in California don’t qualify for federal broadband dollars, Stewart said, and one-third of people who are not online in the United States are located on tribal lands.

“Use your voice in technology to help those of us, not only get money to continue deployment in the U.S. and the world, and work to get higher speeds and symmetrical service,” Stewart told attendees.

“How do we take these grand ideas and turn them into reality at grassroots level,” said Martin Wolske, The Center for Digital Inclusion at the University of Illinois. “This momentum for change doesn’t come from things,” he said. When admiring art, people don’t say, “Isn’t it amazing how that paint made such beautiful art,” Wolske said. Different tools can help achieve different goals: A smart phone is something different when using it for research versus talking to a family member, Wolske said.