When the world shut down two years ago, forcing millions to live their lives online, people without broadband access or the skills to get online were effectively cut off from daily life. They couldn’t shop, go to school or work, or even see a doctor because stores, offices, and classrooms were closed.
The problem was especially difficult for rural communities, such as Orleans County in western New York state, which is located on the south shore of Lake Ontario. Orleans County, population 41,000, suffered from a lack of broadband infrastructure, as did much of rural America.
The county sought state and federal funds to help improve access for nearly a decade, but progress was slow. And, as COVID-19 pandemic-related closures increased, infrastructure and digital literacy gaps widened.
A crisis compelled the federal government to act. Federal COVID relief funds began to flow to the region, resulting in a $3.2 billion investment in fixed wireless broadband to cover the entire county. However, access was only one aspect of the issue. As the pandemic progressed and more people became dependent on the internet for daily activities, it became clear that people were still falling behind.
According to Batt, the shift to online was especially difficult for the county’s elderly residents, who were too vulnerable to the virus to leave their homes for daily tasks such as grocery shopping. He said that while groups and institutions already serving the community, such as libraries, did their best to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and field basic requests for digital assistance, it wasn’t enough.
That’s when Batt and other local nonprofit leaders, including the United Way and the local YMCA, banded together to apply for a private COVID relief grant to help close the digital literacy gap. After a three-month assessment of community needs, they realized they needed to not only teach the most inexperienced internet users, but also support people who were already online but were having difficulty with technology. This included everything from assisting people in purchasing and configuring their first computers to assisting parents with technical issues related to online school.
Batt and his colleagues launched the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative in August to train volunteers from organizations that already support the community to provide tech support. For example, a Meals on Wheels volunteer who has been trained as a mentor may assist an older adult in adding apps to his cellphone so that he can use Instacart or listen to podcasts.
He also stated that the assistance is not limited to the elderly or new internet users. There are digital mentors in the community who can assist parents with their children’s electronic devices.
The digital divide has been a source of consternation for policymakers for decades. Despite the federal government spending billions of dollars each year to connect more Americans across the country, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that at least 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband. The FCC admits that number is likely an underestimate, owing to the government’s use of inaccurate maps to determine who has and does not have service.
Lower-income families face the greatest challenges in navigating an increasingly digital world. This disparity in online access perpetuates what is known as the “homework gap,” or the difference between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who do not. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, 35 percent of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home in 2015.
While the federal government’s digital equity funding is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a significant need for additional funding sources. Some private companies have already begun to take action. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a small nonprofit dedicated to promoting digital inclusion and equity, announced last week that it had received a $10 million grant from Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, to establish the National Digital Navigator Corps. The framework will assist community organizations in training to support digital inclusion efforts in their community by providing one-on-one support and education.