As activities from filling out a job application to filing an income tax return have moved online, the use of the Internet has become critical to the ability to take part in American society. So the release of a report showing that one in four Maine households with access to high-speed Internet service opted not to subscribe in 2013 comes as disheartening news.
Addressing this gap, according to experts, calls for presenting more information on the benefits of Internet service to those who have chosen to go without. But training and education programs aren’t enough. Telling people about all that they can do online won’t do much good if, for example, they lack confidence in their computer skills, or if Maine’s notoriously sluggish broadband service slows them down.
What’s more, because the people who aren’t going online represent different age groups and income levels, Maine should be willing to get creative in its efforts to attract them rather than taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach that allows already disadvantaged people to fall even further behind.
The wrong side of the digital divide
Experts agree that areas that have embraced broadband are growing faster, have lower levels of unemployment and have more businesses than those where broadband adoption is lagging. There’s also no debate that younger and high-income people are more likely to be connected than older and low-income ones.
Seniors who aren’t online miss out on opportunities to stay in touch with family and friends, do comparison shopping for prescription drugs and groceries and access services that allow them to receive health care services from home. In low-income households, a lack of a connection makes it harder for parents to keep in touch with teachers and children to do their homework. And both groups are at a serious disadvantage in seeking work, since an online-only application process has been put in place by many employers, especially large chains hiring for low-skill, low-wage jobs.
Why aren’t more Mainers connected? More and more frequently, those who aren’t online say they see no value in Internet access, the state’s ConnectME Authority found. But while that may be true generally, ConnectME doesn’t say whether that holds true across different demographics.
A review of other research presents a more complex picture. Seniors are far less likely than younger people to view broadband as necessary in their everyday lives. People in low-income households, though, do want to be online at home but cite other reasons for not connecting, including not only cost but also the availability and quality of service.
Reaching those who are unconnected
Elderly and low-income people have different reasons for not going online, so the strategies for reaching them should be different, too.
A state-funded study in Virginia has found that seniors prefer to learn about the Internet – what it will allow them to do and how to use it – as part of existing programs in settings where they already spend time, like churches and senior centers, instead of in classrooms where the focus is on “digital literacy.” Low-income households, especially those with children, depend on libraries for the free Internet access and informal coaching that allow them to hone the skills needed for home computer use.
As organizers work to increase broadband use, we can’t overemphasize the need for funding to establish or expand hours and staffing for the programs set up to reach this goal. At Maine’s libraries, for example, as at other institutions across the country, infrastructure and staff time haven’t kept up with high demand for public access to computers. This makes it particularly hard for newcomers to technology to gain experience and get their questions answered.
Moreover, anyone who gets online in Maine is grappling with service ranked 49th out of 50 in the nation for its quality and availability. Our outdated infrastructure serves a dispersed population, making it too costly to upgrade in the eyes of Internet service providers. The fastest and highest-quality technology – optical fiber connections – isn’t even on our radar screen.
But it could be. In southwestern Virginia – an area with a lot of low-income and elderly residents – a public-private partnership called The Wired Road has built a community-owned fiber and wireless network. The Wired Road doesn’t offer services directly to subscribers. Instead, it builds the infrastructure over which companies compete to offer services – just as cab companies would, using the road system.
Maine should cast a broad net in terms of what it will do to bring as many people as possible on board with broadband. Now that the Internet has become a basic tool of economic and civic interaction, we can’t afford for any Mainer to be left out.