Most efforts to eliminate the digital divide are now industry led, like this program by T-Mobile that provided tablet computers to participants in self-sufficiency programs. Research shows some digital skills training goes a long way in making such efforts more impactful.
Most efforts to eliminate the digital divide are now industry led, like this program by T-Mobile that provided tablet computers to participants in self-sufficiency programs. Research shows some digital skills training goes a long way in making such efforts more impactful. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Terrell Williams helps run a program in Baltimore called Turnaround Tuesday that aims to find permanent jobs in the 21st century digital economy for previously incarcerated citizens returning to society. Through his work, Mr. Williams says he has learned a surprising lesson: The lack of digital skills is an even greater impediment to a job for returning citizens than a prison record.

The labor market has robust demand for “middle skill” jobs, which require no college degree but pay above average and overwhelmingly rely on digital skills. Yet about half of all adults have insufficient “digital readiness” for using digital tools to learn new skills. Among low-income households (those who make $20,000 annually or less), only 59% have a home broadband subscription, compared with 88% for all other U.S. households.

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Although the Obama administration funded broadband adoption programs in its early days, most such programs since 2011 have been industry-led, often in partnerships with community organizations. As the National Digital Inclusion Alliance finds, internet service providers’ discounted internet offerings are widely available, but many households don’t know about them or may otherwise hesitate to plunge into the digital world. The oldest discount program is Comcast’s Internet Essentials (IE) program; it dates to 2011 and has connected some 8 million Americans. It is the only such program to report how many people it has connected — something other companies should emulate.

Increasing the take-rate of discounted broadband programs has been a challenge, yet new research shows that one ingredient — digital skills training — can help encourage people to subscribe while offering a significant boost in how new subscribers use the internet for in-home learning, job search and managing their daily lives. The Technology Policy Institute conducted a survey of 1,275 people on Comcast’s Internet Essentials service to explore what having service at home means to low income households.

The research shows that once people subscribe to broadband, school-age children use home access for schoolwork and streaming educational media. Their parents also quickly get hooked, using the internet to search for jobs and to manage their lives more efficiently. Parents use their new connection to communicate with teachers and school administrators.

Even more interesting, adults get bitten by the “curiosity bug” — the key to all learning. Two-thirds develop an interest in digital training for privacy and security, and half want more training to improve their job skills. Some 35% have pursued digital skills training at libraries and other community institutions in the first three months after signing up for home broadband service. Those who have had digital-skills training report higher levels of online use for learning than those without training and are more likely to say they use the internet to look for or apply for a job.

Interestingly, the survey findings undercut the notion that only the most self-motivated broadband adopters are the ones who pursue digital skills training. In reality, even when we control for motivation levels, we see that digital skills training makes a significant difference. When newly connected adults have the training they need to understand how to use the internet, they are more likely to use the internet to pursue learning or job opportunities.

What does this mean for policymakers and other stakeholders who want to close the digital divide? For one, the findings show the importance of having digital skills training available at community anchor institutions. These community partners are highly trusted and inviting for people without extensive online experience. Our research underscores the importance of partnerships between internet providers and local institutions, which help increase awareness of discounted offerings and serve as a bridge to digital skills training.

Broadband adoption programs such as Internet Essentials, in conjunction with digital skills training, can help create opportunities for more Americans by fostering inclusion in a digital world.

John B. Horrigan (Twitter: @JohnBHorrigan) is a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute and former research director at the FCC.

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