As we discussed in our last piece on broadband, universal broadband access has been a stated public goal of the US since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Yet, despite the federal government having invested roughly $85 billion in pursuit of this goal just in the past 13 years, along with millions more from state governments, the US does not have universal access and the digital divide—the gaps in access to and use of the internet and other information technologies between certain groups of people—persists.
This shortfall in access is, in part, due to a key distinction between availability and adoption (see the list of terms and definitions below). Availability refers to broadband service being offered in a local community, while adoption is the rate of residential subscribership to high-speed internet access. So, while many people have service in their area that does not mean, for example, that that service is affordable to them.
With another $65 billion being allocated to broadband through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), it is important to understand why there is a gap between availability and adoption if governments are to effectively leverage these funds to finally achieve universal access and close the digital divide.
Roughly half of households that have not adopted broadband despite it being available in their area forego a subscription because they cannot afford it. However, there are several other common reasons for non-adoption, including a lack of awareness of the benefits of broadband, unfamiliarity with digital devices, and insufficient digital skills and digital literacy, which the American Library Association defines as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” Collectively, these are sometimes referred to as “digital readiness.”
Digital literacy includes basic skills such as using a keyboard and mouse, typing proficiency, and finding files on a computer. However, in today’s work environment, digital literacy also entails learning how to use office productivity software such as Microsoft Office, learning how to use video conferencing software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and understanding best practices for internet safety and security, among other skills.
Our initial research focused on a general overview of state and local policies and on municipal broadband and cooperatives. We then turned our attention to policies designed to make broadband more affordable. This work now serves to analyze policies designed for addressing digital literacy and the other reasons for non-adoption.
The Importance of Digital Literacy to Local Workforce and Economic Development
Broadband adoption and digital literacy are integral to workforce preparedness and development. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that, as of 2016, 70 percent of jobs in the more than 500 occupations they examined (which comprises 90 percent of all jobs in the US) require either a medium or high level of digital skills, a proportion that has likely gone up in the half decade since. Jobs that incorporate these higher levels of digital content tend to pay more, according the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Moreover, using broadband enables job seekers to find jobs more easily and allows workers to telecommute.
Beyond workforce development, broadband adoption and digital literacy skills may play a role in the development of local economies. While expanding broadband infrastructure in an area may lead to job creation, if local residents do not have the requisite skillset these jobs will likely be filled by people moving into the area rather than local workers. Some research bears this out. A 2014 study published in Telecommunications Policy, for example, found that in rural areas, high levels of broadband adoption had positive impacts on income growth and employment levels between 2001 and 2010. Broadband availability measures, however, demonstrated only limited impacts, which suggests that future broadband policies should be more focused on promoting adoption. However, further research may be needed to better understand the relationship between adoption, digital literacy, and local economic impacts.
While expanding broadband infrastructure in an area may lead to job creation, if local residents do not have the requisite skillset these jobs will likely be filled by people moving into the area rather than local workers.
Assessing Digital Literacy and Knowledge in the US
According to a report published by the US Department of Education in 2018, 16 percent of working-age adults (16 to 65 years old) are not digitally literate when assessed using standards defined by the OECD. However, the rate of digital literacy varies greatly across demographics.
While only 11 percent of white adults are digitally illiterate, this rate is much higher among Black (22 percent) and Hispanic adults (35 percent). Moreover, a lower percentage of native-born adults (13 percent) are digitally illiterate compared to foreign-born adults (36 percent). Additionally, there are lower rates of digital illiteracy among younger adults (8 percent for those aged 16 to 24, for example) than older adults (28 percent for those aged 55 to 65, for example). Much like adoption rates, the largest disparities are found between those with different levels of education. While only 5 percent of adults with an associate’s degree or higher are digitally illiterate, this rate stands at 41 percent for adults without a high school degree.
Americans’ knowledge and understanding of technology-related issues also varies significantly depending on the specific topic, term, or concept. A 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that while most Americans can correctly answer questions about phishing scams (67 percent), website cookies (63 percent), and online advertising (59 percent), far fewer understood topics such as privacy policies (48 percent), website encryption security (30 percent), two-factor authentication (28 percent), and private browsing mode (24 percent).
Implementing Digital Literacy (and Digital Fluency) Programs: The Case of CanCode Communities in New York’s Capital Region
Nonprofits and community-based organizations have taken the lead in developing, funding, and offering digital literacy and fluency programming. One such organization in New York is CanCode Communities, a nonprofit established as Albany CanCode in 2016 to develop a pipeline that connects individuals with an aptitude for software but who lack access to training with local employers in need of software and IT professionals. In their work, CEO and Founder Annmarie Lanesey saw that many people needed additional training in basic computer skills to be able to participate in their professional training coursework. CanCode Communities partnered with state (New York State Department of Labor and New York State Office for New Americans), local governments (Albany Public Library and Capital Region BOCES), and nonprofits (United Way of the Greater Capital Region) to create digital literacy programs that provide access to necessary hardware and an internet connection and teaches students how to operate computer productivity software, email, and web browsing. These programs target underserved populations such as low-income students and recent immigrants to teach basic computer skills.
Whether they be run by government or a nonprofit, digital literacy programs are often implemented through public libraries.
“Our reliance on technology, computers, and the internet is undeniable in a post-pandemic world,” Lanesey said. “The internet allowed us to keep working remotely and that shift is here to stay. So, too, are all the things we do online: apply for jobs, bank, shop, file taxes, monitor daycare, stream movies, and so much more. However, there’s a problem. Too many people are being left behind. They don’t have access to the internet or they lack the skills to use a computer.”
Unlike most state-run digital literacy efforts, nonprofits often go beyond basic digital skills to teach what Lanesey refers to as digital fluency, more advanced skills that may help individuals pursue careers in the computer and information technology industry such as web development, data analysis, or other roles that involve computer programming. CanCode Communities, for example, offers courses in advanced skills such as data analysis and front-end web development. Other organizations, such as Per Scholas, offer courses in advanced topics ranging from IT support to cybersecurity to full stack Java development to cloud computing as well as many other in-demand digital skills.
Whether they be run by government or a nonprofit, digital literacy programs are often implemented through public libraries. According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), in “some cases, libraries have created special paid or volunteer positions or invited partner organizations into the library to assume this role [of teaching digital skills].” For example, the Bossard Memorial Library in Gallipolis, Ohio, offers a Book-a-Librarian program called “Tech Tutor,” which gives community members the opportunity to book one-on-one technology training sessions with library staff.
Addressing Digital Literacy and Other Reasons for Non-Adoption
Though most public efforts at expanding access have been geared toward building infrastructure, that has started to shift in recent years as governments at all levels have begun emphasizing digital inclusion and digital equity. Pursuing these goals entails a greater focus on adoption efforts.
At the most basic level, most states’ strategic broadband plans now include goals and recommendations about how to make internet subscriptions more affordable and increase adoption in other ways such as focusing on digital literacy and education about broadband’s benefits. For example, Arizona’s strategic plan includes goals of ensuring that “[b]roadband is accessible and affordable,” and that “[c]itizens understand the impact of broadband and promote adoption.”
Though most public efforts at expanding access have been geared toward building infrastructure, that has started to shift in recent years as governments at all levels have begun emphasizing digital inclusion and digital equity.
However, many states—along with the federal government and numerous localities—have gone further by implementing policies to achieve these goals. At the federal level, the IIJA includes affordability measures such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), as well as $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act, which, among other things, creates provisions for digital skills training and education to low-income populations.
Several states have also implemented initiatives related to digital literacy and other aspects of digital equity and inclusion:
- California’s Advanced Services Fund (CASF) Adoption Account aims to help communities with limited broadband adoption through grants geared toward building publicly available broadband and promoting digital inclusion, digital literacy, and public education in communities with low adoption rates. California also created the Digital Divide Innovation Challenge, an open competition that will award up to $1 million to the “boldest proposals to eliminate the digital divide and expand high-speed internet across California.”
- North Carolina’s governor established the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, the first of its kind in the US, in July 2021. The state is investing nearly $1 billion in ARPA funds to achieve digital equity with a focus on, among other things, digital literacy, as well as $50 million in state funds for a digital literacy awareness campaign. The state’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity also created a digital inclusion guide for local areas to use.
- Colorado’s advisory committee on broadband established the Subcommittee on Digital Literacy and Inclusion, which researches and analyzes digital literacy and inclusion efforts. The subcommittee is tasked with raising awareness of digital literacy and inclusion issues, building policy recommendations, identifying data milestones, and researching the best practices for increasing digital resilience.
- Hawaii conducted a two-part Digital Literacy and Readiness Study to assess needs in the state. The study, whose results were published in late 2021, found that the state had lower rates of digital readiness compared to a national benchmark digital readiness survey conducted in 2015. Consequently, the Hawaii State Public Library System partnered with the Workforce Development Council to increase digital literacy and readiness through a new initiative called Digital Skills for Workforce Hui that provides opportunities for people seeking to improve their digital literacy skills.
- Multiple states incentivize internet service providers (ISP) to offer adoption assistance, such as providing technical support and training services, holding digital literacy and online security informational events, and offering an assistance program to low-income consumers. These states include Illinois, Alabama, Indiana, Virginia, Michigan, and California.
As expanding access to broadband shifts from addressing availability to barriers such as digital literacy, nonprofits, educators, and policymakers are developing innovative solutions. When considering investments in digital literacy inclusion policy makers should consider some of the following recommendations:
- Digital literacy programs may be most appropriately developed at the local level by those that best understand the barriers faced by the community. Increasing the capacity of literacy programs in local schools, community colleges, libraries, and nonprofits will help increase access.
- While local is better, digital equity strategies and policies should be coordinated across federal, state, and local governments. There have been a wide range of approaches developed and we need more information to better understand which approaches are most successful.
- Develop and promote a network of “digital navigators,” experts who work hands on with community members to address adoption barriers such as hardware, affordability, and digital literacy.
- Solutions to address digital literacy are being developed in real time by a range of institutions. More information is needed to understand the efficacy of programs and approaches. As these programs are funded, policymakers must also invest in developing methods and metrics to track the outcomes and impacts of these programs. Such analysis will be critical to developing evidence-based policy moving forward.
While most government efforts related to broadband have revolved around deploying physical infrastructure, promoting adoption is an important consideration if universal access is ever going to be achieved. In recent years, governments at all levels have started placing a greater emphasis on adoption, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which not only laid bare the disparities of the digital divide but also redoubled society’s reliance on broadband. However, these initiatives have largely focused on affordability with less attention being paid to other reasons for non-adoption such as lack of digital literacy and digital readiness.
Yet, policies in this area do exist at the state and federal levels. States and localities that have not yet recognized the importance of promoting adoption have the opportunity to look to their counterparts—as well as many nonprofits and community organizations—to see which strategies have been effective.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Schwartzbach is a graduate research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.