How to Close the Digital Divide: And Why It Is a Matter of Public Policy!

California State Association of Counties

Lloyd Levine | September 15, 2016

This is the second of a two-part series on the digital divide. Part one can be found here.

Why is the Digital Divide a matter of public policy? The answer is simple: Since the turn of the new millennium, high-speed Internet access has become crucial to business, education, health and civic life.

Digital access and inclusion are 21st-century social justice and equity issues. Like the electricity grid, railroads, and the Federal Highway System, broadband infrastructure is a necessary public and private good. Because so much of modern life is dependent on being connected, the California has a compelling state interest to ensure that broadband access is available and affordable to everyone.

Recognizing this, the California Legislature has enshrined in statute a goal of 98% broadband access by 2017. Yet California is falling short of that goal, especially in rural areas, where the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimates only 43% of rural households have access to reliable broadband service.

While the private sector has connected 70% of the state, that number has leveled off. To bridge the rest of the divide, the public and private sectors must work together.

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How Bad Is the Digital Divide in California?

California State Association of Counties

Lloyd Levine | September 7, 2016

In California in 2016, the state that practically invented the Internet, 30% of Californians (nearly 12 million people) do not have meaningful broadband at home, according to an August 2016 survey by The Field Research Corporation.

This article, part one of a two-part series, will look at the historical data on the Digital Divide and the new data from the recent Field Poll. This data will provide the context necessary to understand the problem and formulate appropriate public policy solutions.

The graph to the left provides some historical context for California’s current Digital Divide. The overall broadband (i.e. high-speed internet) adoption rate has increased significantly since 2008, climbing from 55% in 2008 to 84% as of July 2016. However, that 84% is really illusory and doesn’t paint a full picture. California’s broadband adoption rate is at 84%, only if we include the 14% of people whose only access is on a smartphone.

The California Emerging Technology Fund, which commissioned the survey, is technology neutral but recognizes differences in technological functionality. Smartphones do not have the necessary functionality to be an appropriate substitute for laptop or desktop computers. Because smartphones have small screens, small keyboards, and limited functionality on websites and applications, individuals who rely on them are considered “under-connected”—in other words, they are not able to fully compete in the digital economy.

Because of the limitations inherent in smartphones, and because 14% of Californians are “smartphone only” users, it is more accurate and appropriate for policy makers to use the “meaningful” broadband adoption rate of 70%.

To really understand why and how a 30% Digital Divide exists in California, it is necessary to understand the terms “access” and “adoption.”

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Why Smartphones Alone Won’t Close the Digital Divide

Sacramento Bee

Sunne Wright McPeak | August 21, 2016

There is much to celebrate in the Field Poll’s annual survey on the “digital divide” in California. The percentage of Californians with high-speed internet at home has risen to 84 percent in 2016 from 55 percent in 2008.

But the divide between those who have broadband at home and those who do not is closing largely because of smartphones. The 2016 survey found that among the 84 percent with home broadband, 14 percent are connecting only through their smartphones. This percentage is a near doubling of smartphone-only users since last year.

No doubt, smartphones are marvelous devices that provide access to information and online applications. But they are limited functionally for doing school homework, applying for jobs or college or taking online courses.

The problem is that those who rely only on smartphones are the very people most in need of the upward economic mobility enhanced by internet-connected computing devices.

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Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article96594082.html#storylink=cpyReaa

Disconnected in Silicon Valley's Shadow

Daily Dot

Rebecca Huval | August 14, 2016

Just two hours outside of futuristic Silicon Valley, the county of Fresno, California, looks like a time capsule from the 1970s. Beyond the prom dress shops with their cartoonish window paintings, the vacant lots, and the brutalist AT&T building that seems to lack windows, you’ll find the Parc Grove Commons housing projects. Inside the community room, 45 adult students are learning about the internet. On this sunny summertime Thursday, every single student has shown up to class.

Today, they’re learning about email. “Instead of putting mail in an envelope and waiting a couple of days, you can send a message instantly,” explains the teacher, John Gonzalez. An older student responds with delight: “Oooooh.” At the end of the nine-week class—organized by the Fresno Housing Authority and California State University (CSU), Fresno’s Office of Community & Economic Development—students with perfect attendance will earn an HP laptop.

Racheale Mitchell, who lives in the apartments, is attending because she had once lost a job offer as a result of her limited access to the internet. The 28-year-old had been driving 10 minutes to her cousin’s house to use his computer. Sometimes, she would drive to the library, but she was often given a numbered ticket and told to wait. Since then, she’s landed a job with the public school district working as an attendance clerk, and she wants to be able to update students’ files from home.

“[The internet] should be a right for everyone,” Mitchell says. “You can’t even go into a store and fill out a job application anyone. They say: ‘We’ll email you back for the interview.’”

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The 'Smartphone Only’ Problem

Pacific Standard

Rick Paulas | August 11, 2016

In Internet terms, the year 2009 occurred lifetimes ago. “David After Dentist” was the hot meme sensation, Twitter just began proving that 140 characters were more than enough for most, and podcasts were some weird thing only the mightiest of nerds downloaded.

It was also a different era in terms of who was online in America. The population skewed pretty young, with more than 50 percent of American Internet users under 44 years old. Racially, it was mixed: 80 percent of whites said “they use the Internet”), 72 percent of the black population used it, and the Latino population lagged behind. In 2009, only 64 percent of Latinos in the United States used the Internet.

new study by Pew Research shows that a lot has changed in six years. Now, the percentage of U.S. Latinos who say they use the Internet is higher than the percentage of the U.S. black population who say they do: 84 to 81 percent. During that same span, the percentage of immigrant Latinos using the Internet rose from 51 to 78 percent.

This dramatic shift can be attributed largely to a few different factors. For starters, public libraries. A 2015 Pew study found that 83 percent of U.S.-born Latinos use libraries. “[Public libraries] were an important way in which Hispanic immigrants used technology,” says Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic Research for Pew, and one of the study’s authors. “They actually go in and ask for help to do things on a computer, and that includes everything from filling out a job application to looking at information to accessing the Internet.”

But the largest factor shrinking the U.S. Latino digital divide has been the Internet access points they can hold in their palms.

“The availability of mobile devices has been a big [reason],” Lopez says.

Lopez’s conclusion fits in with previous data examining the closing digital divide among Latinos. In 2013, Pew found that, as mobile phone ownership went up in the U.S. Latino population, so did the number that said they used the Internet. It’s not the most shocking of findings. Drops in smartphone pricing have allowed their adoption to skyrocket, providing people with more potential access points.

But the unique relationship that mobile phone use has had in getting more U.S. Latinos to use the Internet hints at a potential problem. Sure, a larger portion of the Latino population may be using the Internet now than in 2009, but that doesn’t mean the access is equivalent to how whites are traversing the Web.

“Latinos are less likely to own a computer at home than whites, and more likely to be smartphone-dependent,” Lopez says.

This means that, for a large section of the U.S. Latino population, smartphones are the only access point they have to get onto the Internet. The white population, meanwhile, is more likely to have a smartphone andpersonal home computers. While access is access, there’s a huge difference between navigating the Web on a personal computer and navigating on a phone, just as there’s a huge difference between rabbit ear antennas and high-definition digital.

Declaring a “narrowing” to the Latino digital divide, then, seems like false hope. Rather, it seems one problem is simply being traded in for another.

This dissonance between perception and reality was evident in a recent pollfrom the independent research corporation Field Poll looking at California’s digital divide. It found that 84 percent of Californians now have high-speed Internet at home, up 9 percent since 2014. On the surface, this suggests that the divide is narrowing, but a deeper examination of the data leaves the picture murkier.

A huge chunk of the rise was due, once again, to the proliferation of the smartphone. This, in itself, isn’t a problem. But the poll also showed that the percentage of Californians who accessed their home Internet by only using a smartphone nearly doubled, from 8 to 14 percent, over the past two years. Even Field Poll pointed out the problems with this:

While this is enabling more to get online, these users have more limited functionality when connecting to the Internet than those connecting from a desktop, laptop or tablet computer. In addition, some smart phone users face limitations in data access based on their monthly cell phone plans.

Further along in the report, they examine the state’s Spanish-speaking Latino population. While 69 percent have access to broadband Internet in their home, only 39 percent connect to the Internet using a “home computing device.”

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Frontier Looks to Help Take on California’s Digital Divide

CED | August 8, 2016

Applying for jobs and college and jobs. Homework. Access to health, education and civic information.

Those topics are often at the top of the conversation about the digital divide as studies pile up indicating the huge disadvantages low-income households face around the lack of easy broadband access. And the stats can be surprising. For example, around 16 percent of California households do not have access to high-speed Internet, according to the "2016 Annual Survey on Home Broadband Adoption in California" by the Field Research Corp.

According to the Field poll, California groups reporting the lowest levels of home broadband connectivity (including those using a smartphone only) are adults who have not graduated from high school (63 percent), seniors age 65 or older (56 percent), adults who identify having a disability (71 percent), Spanish-speaking Latinos (69 percent) and households whose total annual income is less than $20,000 (68 percent).

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We Must Bridge the Rural Digital Divide

The Fresno Bee

By Shelby Gonzales | August 4, 2016

For the past decade, residents of Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties in California’s Central Valley have waited for high-speed internet access.

We cheered when the state Legislature created the California Advanced Services Fund to pay for the laying of fiber-optic cable in rural areas. And we applauded when that fund spent $46 million on the CENIC-CVIN project connecting more than 200,000 households and public institutions across the Central Valley. (CENIC-CVIN is the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California together with its private-sector partner the Central Valley Independent Network.)

But we are alarmed that the fate of CASF is uncertain. Some legislators don’t seem to understand the reasons for the infrastructure costs of high-speed internet – and they don’t seem to understand what happens when people find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Nor do they seem to care that in California, 47 percent of rural households still do not have access to reliable and fast internet – far from the legislative goal of 98 percent.

Here’s what the wrong side of the digital divide looks like in the Valley:

In Farmersville, a city of 10,000 in Tulare County, AT&T decided last year to reduce its footprint, leaving half of the city without coverage. High-speed fiber-optic cable is literally sitting across the street from City Hall, but Farmersville doesn’t have the funds to connect to it.

Its current internet speeds are also dangerously slow; Police Department body cams take 12 to18 hours to download, raising public safety concerns.

Farmersville also wants to open a public library with the 21st-century service of broadband, so students can do their homework and apply for college, and adults can apply for jobs and health insurance. But again, the funding mechanism that has worked best for rural Californians is out of money.

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The Growth in 'Underconnected' Californians Should Alarm Us

San Jose Mercury News

By Michelle Quinn | August 1, 2016

At first glance, the latest data on California's digital divide looks like amazingly good news.

A whopping 84 percent of Californians now have access to broadband internet at home, up 9 percentage points since 2014, according to a new Field Poll.

At that rate, the digital divide -- the gulf between the information haves and have nots -- could be wiped out in less than three years.

But most of those gains have come from increased smartphone use. In the past year alone, there's been a near doubling -- from 8 percent to 14 percent -- of state residents now online because of smartphones. Meanwhile, the percentage of Californians connecting to the internet via a laptop or a desktop has remained flat for several years.

"That is the biggest problem," said Mark DiCamillo, director of The Field Poll, which conducted the survey for the California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit focused on broadband deployment and adoption.

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Refund Program to Help Expand Broadband Internet Service

Sacramento Bee

By Rachelle Chong and Lloyd Levine | July 12, 2016

his year is turning out to be a bellwether year for internet law and policy. In June, a federal court ruled that high-speed internet is an essential “utility” and should be available to all Americans. In February, the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband internet as a Title II common carrier service, moving it from an information service to a telecommunications service.

Because of these decisions, federal law now requires that broadband infrastructure be extended to all households, and that the digital divide must be closed, meaning all Americans must get trained in basic internet skills to be digitally literate.

California, like the rest of the country, still has much work to do to close the digital divide. According to the 2015 Field Poll study, one-fifth of Californians do not have high-speed internet at home. More startling, an April 2016 Public Utilities Commission report found that only 43 percent of rural households have access to reliable broadband service.

The divide is due to the cost of broadband for consumers and the expense involved in deploying infrastructure in rural and remote areas. Laying fiber optic cable in a state as large and geographically complex as California is expensive. Incentives have proved necessary to entice competitive internet service providers to make the required capital outlays and investments in infrastructure. This is why during our terms of government service, we conceptualized and helped found the California Advanced Services Fund program at the PUC.

The fund program is an innovative public-private mechanism. It funds broadband infrastructure in areas with no internet service or very slow dial-up service; in other words, where the free market – consisting of telephone companies, cable operators, wireless internet providers and others – has failed to bring fast internet services to its residents. Funding for the program has come by charging a few pennies per month on Californians’ phone bills and by requiring matching funds from willing broadband providers.

To date, the program has funded 56 broadband projects, bringing broadband to over 300,000 households. The average cost per households has been $1,363, of which only $441 has come from the program because California has been able to leverage federal funds. The program is highly cost effective at achieving its mission, especially when compared to the federal Connect America Fund average of $2,550 per household.

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Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities: An Interview with Thomas Foley of the World Institute on Disability

Over the past three decades, the lives of people with disabilities have improved significantly because of access to high-speed Internet.  The World Institute on Disability (WID) has been a witness to and participant in this phenomenon.  Founded in 1983 by disability community leaders, WID’s mission is to eliminate barriers to full social integration and increase employment, economic security, and health care for persons with disabilities in communities and nations worldwide.

Since 2013, WID has collaborated with the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF)—a nonprofit directed by the California Legislature to close the Digital Divide—to better understand the degree to which Californians with disabilities are served in their access to the Internet.  Findings from the 2014 survey have informed government, nonprofit, and corporate leaders about the importance of digital access for the disability community.

Results from the 2015 survey, “Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities,” show that 66% of Californians with disabilities have access to high-speed Internet, up from 4% in 2014—yet trailing the larger population by 13 percentage points.  Other findings from the 100-person survey include:  $10 a month is what non-Internet subscribers say they can afford (versus $50 to $70 a month); over half of respondents say their disability makes it difficult to use a device to go online; and about a third of respondents use an assistive device or software to access the Internet, increasing the cost to get online at home.

CETF sat down with Thomas Foley, WID’s deputy director to learn more about the study.

How do findings from the 2015 WID-CETF survey differ from the previous one, and what do they tell us about the challenges to broadband access and adoption for Californians with disabilities?

FOLEY:  We’ve seen a slight overall uptick in in adoption for people with disabilities between 2014 and 2015—from 62% to 66%. We believe this is due to a concentrated effort to focus adoption outreach directly to the disability community through trusted partners, such as the California Foundation for Independent Living.  We will be very interested to see if adoption rates continue to increase when we survey participants again for the 2016 survey.

Is there enough focus on the affordability of high-speed Internet for Californians with disabilities?  And, if not, what legislative or other measures could be taken to increase affordability?

FOLEY:  We know that folks with disabilities are tremendously overrepresented in the lower income demographics, not only in California, but nationwide, so cost is always a concern.  That said, most survey recipients report that about $10 per month is what they would be willing to pay for a broadband connection and the California Foundation for Independent Living has been doing a great job connecting consumers to a product at this price point.  Policy options that could increase the number of organizations offering all people with disabilities a $10 per month service would go a long way to helping to narrow the Digital Divide.

Tell us about the development of assistive devices—are the ones on the market solving the problems people with disabilities face getting online?  

FOLEY:  There is a multitude of products that help folks with disabilities gain access to the Internet.  From laptops with voice output, to mobile devices with built-in accessibility features, to switch-enabled browsing options—an increasing number of products are competently addressing access issues for people with disabilities.  The price of many of these options, however, remains outside what most people with disabilities can afford.  In addition, the Internet itself has to be consciously designed to enable access.  Design standards, such as W3CAG2.0, provide guidance to help make the Internet accessible to people with disabilities.  But if developers ignore this guidance, accessibility and the promise of the Internet will suffer.

How could the State of California reach its 80 percent adoption goal among Californians with disabilities?

California can increase access for people with disabilities by partnering with local and regional disability organizations connected in their communities. These organizations are trusted partners and help to provide access to all types of services within the community, including Internet access.

To read the full 2015 survey, “Home Internet Adoption by Californians with Disabilities, click here.