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VIEWPOINT: Let’s lift families up with broadband connections

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Britney Mumford | PHOTO COURTESY OF RUGGERIO WILSON

For generations, working Americans have been advised they’ll need a three-legged stool for retirement: Social Security, personal savings, and a pension or defined-contribution plan.

Today, young Americans need another three-legged stool to succeed during their careers: basic literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy.

We have a big job to do. One third of all adult Americans’ digital skills are limited at best. And three out of four middle schoolers struggle with 21st century digital proficiency.  Here in Delaware, half of all third-graders cannot read at grade level.

In short, we’re falling short in our mandate to prepare today’s students to thrive in tomorrow’s job market.  By 2030, 90% of all jobs in the US will require digital skills.  The infrastructure bill offers a vision – and critically, the funding – to start closing this gap.

Universal broadband availability is a prerequisite, and thankfully Delaware is well on its way.  98.5% of homes across the state already have internet service available, and Governor Carney recently announced a $56 million investment to reach more than 11,000 remaining unserved homes and businesses. By partnering with proven, experienced network builders, Delaware now has a chance to become the first state in the country with 100% coverage.

The infrastructure bill’s new $30-per-month subsidy program for low-income families also ensures these fast networks are financially accessible for all.  About 200,000 Delawareans are eligible for this benefit, which covers the full cost of service through providers’ low-income programs.

But even with this infrastructure available and affordable, 28% of Delawareans still don’t subscribe. Only 58% of families with incomes of $30,000 or less are online, compared to 92% of those making more than $75,000.

That’s why our biggest digital equity challenge will be equipping every Delawarean with the digital know-how and confidence to make the most of the broadband connections that are now more widely available and affordable than ever before.

We have our work cut out for us:  71% of adults across the country without home internet don’t think it will make a difference in their lives. National surveys show the challenges include: fear about online risks, language barriers, and housing insecurity, among many others.

Like so many aspects of our education system, changing these attitudes and outcomes has to start with family outreach and community engagement.  “Digital navigator” initiatives offer a promising model:  specially trained staff or volunteers within schools, libraries, social service agencies, or community non-profits who can work one-on-one with unconnected families to help them sign up and offer a crash-course in online basics. 

Meanwhile, school leaders need to press full speed ahead to modernize curricula and work digital skills into all aspects of daily learning.  We should give principals and individual teachers the flexibility and autonomy to try new approaches.

It’s a big challenge, but the infrastructure bill’s unprecedented funding surge gives Delaware the resources to get the job done.  We can be the first state to connect every resident to the internet – and the first state to ensure every graduating student has the digital skills to thrive in our connected future.

Britney Mumford is executive director of DelawareCan (the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now), as a nonprofit education advocacy organization.

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