The pandemic brought a lot of awareness to the digital divide, the inequities between those who have access to the internet and the technology to use it and those who do not.
When schools and workplaces closed to stem the spread of COVID-19, communities came together to provide that access, but it was often in temporary ways. Hotspots can only go so far. As the world opens back up, the challenge going forward will be finding ways to permanently offer that digital access to people, overcoming economic challenges and offering training and other support.
Angela Siefer, founder and executive director of the Columbus-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance, doesn’t have to tell people there’s a digital divide very much anymore, or explain it in too much depth. Awareness of the issue has greatly increased, she said. Federal investments have increased, too. And communities are working to try to close the gap.
“We’ve gained a lot,” she said. “We’ve also learned a lot of lessons. And I think those lessons are important in how we think about this all moving forward.”
One big lesson was in how important the “human side” is to closing the digital divide, Siefer said. Just passing out hotspots isn’t enough; offering the necessary training, the technical support and the digital literacy education opportunities is critical.
The early days of the pandemic were about getting people the equipment they needed to close the gap quickly, said Jill Rizika, president and CEO of Towards Employment. To that end, the Cleveland-based workforce development organization built up a Chromebook and hotspot library.
Connectivity is still a challenge for many, Rizika said, but that has been eased some as public spaces like libraries opened back up.
But it became apparent that digital literacy was a hurdle, too. Towards Employment added more formal training in that space, including in digital etiquette as job interviews and jobs themselves become more virtual.
Organizations need to help people “find those bridges across the digital divide,” said Dorothy Baunach, chief executive of DigitalC. The connection is important, but so is being able to use it.
From March of 2020 to March of 2021, nonprofit internet provider DigitalC grew from about 80 customers to 800, Baunach said. In the next three to five years, she expects that customer base to grow to up to 40,000 as the organization scales up.
Much of that growth will be thanks to the Mandel and Myers foundations. In July, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Supporting Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation announced significant funding — $15 million from Mandel and another $5 million from the combined foundations — to support DigitalC.
The funding was to not only scale up the technology, but also its adoption. The organizations wanted to see DigitalC providing connectivity, as well as wraparound services like training and technical support, Baunach said.
On the connectivity side, growth taught DigitalC that it needed to change its approach.
As the organization worked to provide internet access to more communities in Cleveland this year, its leaders realized that it would need to use more kinds of technology. It began with what Baunach calls a “fiber ring in the sky,” a line-of-sight technology used across the world. But Cleveland’s tree cover — and the materials used in some of its oldest buildings, like brick and stone — meant that particular technology’s reach was limited. Now the organization is pursuing a “multi-tiered technology strategy,” Baunach said.
Ultimately, the technology is just “a small piece of the puzzle,” Baunach said.
“It enables it,” she said. “But it’s the big lift on the empowerment side that’s going to take us working more and more closely together.”
Take, for example, the Greater Cleveland Digital Navigators program launched this past year.
There are voucher programs available for people who may struggle to afford at-home internet access, and Cleveland had done an OK job using word-of-mouth to raise awareness of them, said Leon Wilson, chief of digital innovation and chief information officer at the Cleveland Foundation.
The Digital Navigators program walks residents through the different options, helping them find the best plan for their household, giving suggestions on where to get affordable technology and directing them toward digital literacy training options. The hotline is staffed by members of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, the local public library systems and more, Wilson said.
Siefer said helping people navigate different internet access options is important. After all, “free internet sounds like a scam,” she said.
Communities will need to continue paying for digital literacy like this going forward. The federal government is making an “incredible down payment” with broadband subsidies and the infrastructure bill, but these funding sources aren’t long-term solutions, Siefer said. And as technology continues to change, training will have to change with it.
Siefer said the next big challenge in closing the digital divide will be figuring out how to best use the federal dollars at hand. It’s going to require collaboration, understanding the assets already in play and the gaps still to close.
Much of that funding is going to states, so the goal for cities like Cleveland will be to make sure that urban areas, not just rural, are included in those plans, Wilson said.
And working together once those dollars are dispersed will be critical, but challenging, because “everybody has a solution,” Wilson said, from nonprofits to advocacy groups to for-profit service providers.
In general, there’s a lot of passion out there, and a lot of people who “want to do good,” he said, but not all the ideas have been vetted. There’s not a cohesive vision for closing the digital divide. The city and surrounding suburbs need to work together to identify the best solutions for the region, he said.
Baunach thinks the time is right for change. The money is there for the infrastructure, but the community has to work together to help people close those gaps.
“And that’s a heavy lift,” she said. “It’s all hands on deck from the community. If we work together, we can do this.”
The digital divide won’t be solved by one individual or organization. It’s too big, too broad for that, with wide-reaching impacts on everything from education to health care to job opportunities. But the focus and the passion of those working on it today could make a big impact for the future.