By Hilary O. Shelton
President Obama recently announced a TechHire program that will invest in high-tech job skills training for America’s labor force. Because tech wages continue to rise faster than other sectors, initiatives like this not only help catapult our tech leadership into the 21st century but also help address income inequality.
And as important as these initiatives are, they are only part of the puzzle. If the United States wants to truly be the global tech leader, then all Americans must have broadband and other digital tools in their own homes.
This is no longer an option for Americans, especially for communities of color hardest hit by the recent recession. Eighty percent of all U.S. jobs will require digital fluency within the next 10 years and 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept job applications online. But today, African-American and Hispanic families lag some 15 points behind whites in broadband adoption.
Four years ago, the FCC teamed with the nation’s largest broadband provider to initiate the largest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide.
The undertaking, known as Internet Essentials, offers heavily discounted broadband service and a computer for less than $150 to low-income families. It also trains those participating with state-of-the-art digital skills. The government’s private sector partner is Comcast; other companies like Cox Communications and CenturyLink are following behind.
The success of the program has been beyond anyone’s imagination. Internet Essentials has connected 450,000 homes representing 1.8 million low-income Americans to broadband, every one of whom has a story about the doors that have been opened and the new possibilities this change has meant.
The combination of hands-on training and inexpensive broadband service and equipment has made this one of the most successful digital divide initiatives ever tried. Eighty-five percent of program subscribers use the Internet every single day – 98 percent said their children use it for school and 95 percent said it improved children’s grades.
In real terms, that means hundreds of thousands of students with new learning experiences and new opportunities to find jobs, connect with their families and apply to college. It’s a doorway into the modern connected world that so many take for granted.
We need every idea on the table to solve this problem – like new apps for news, education, jobs and civic engagement. The digital divide took years of neglect to open so wide – it’ll also take years of commitment and hard work to close.
Hilary O. Shelton is the NAACP’s Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy.