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VIEWPOINT: Closing Delaware’s digital divide

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Inflation’s sting is making back-to-school shopping a bigger struggle than usual for families all across Delaware, but at least one educational essential is bucking that trend: home internet service.  And thanks to a new program funded by President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, more than 75,000 lower-income Delaware households can now get connected for free.

Markevis Gideon | PHOTO COURTESY OF NERDIT NOW

But in the months since this new Affordable Connectivity Program launched with buy-in from the country’s biggest broadband providers, only one-third of eligible Delaware households have signed up. Delaware has some of the fastest, most widely available broadband infrastructure in the country, now available for free to families who need the help – yet tens of thousands of our neighbors are still heading into the new school year without a digital lifeline. 

If we can’t figure out how to close that gap, the Affordable Connectivity Program could go down as one of the biggest missed opportunities in Delaware history.

Luckily, there’s still time – and money – to get this right.  Delaware is looking at a massive state budget surplus, and we still have at least $100 million more coming our way in federal broadband funding.  Delaware officials should invest a big chunk of this funding behind a real plan to help our unconnected neighbors break down the barriers keeping them from digital opportunity.

Starting with access to computers.  Free internet service won’t do much for the 70,000 Delawareans without a computer in the home.  That’s why my computer refurbishing company, NERDiT NOW, launched a foundation seven years ago that donates repurposed computers to families in need. Funding from 2020’s CARES Act helped us provide more than 10,000 computers to families across Delaware. We also train individuals on how to get employable skills within the tech space. These training courses will be offered in our new building opening in Wilmington this fall which will be focused on offering classes to the community at every level.

Now, Delaware can use this next wave of federal broadband funding to scale up similar programs all over the state. The Affordable Connectivity Program offers families a one-time $100 benefit to help with purchasing a computer, and state and county programs can step in and offer additional support for families who need more help. 

While we’re making sure everyone has access to a connected device, we also need to make sure they have the skills to use it. As more of our economy moves online, digital skills are becoming a dividing line between poverty and opportunity – yet one third of U.S. adults lack the basic capabilities needed to compete in today’s workforce.

Libraries, community colleges, and nonprofits can all play a big role closing these gaps by offering computer classes and training seminars in neighborhoods all over state.

Research shows that pairing these training programs with one-on-one support from digital “navigators” is particularly effective. More than 85% of people who’ve participated in such navigator programs nationwide report using the internet more afterward, and nearly two-thirds found the support helpful in signing up for broadband or obtaining a computer. 

State officials should take this opportunity to build out more programs statewide, in partnership with the nonprofits and community associations who have the most trust and credibility in under-connected neighborhoods.

Navigators can also be a powerful force multiplier for tackling perhaps the hardest part of the digital divide: sparking the interest and inspiring the minds of neighbors who feel lost and left behind in our increasingly digital age. For an alarmingly large percentage of unconnected adults, the biggest barrier to getting online is not really understanding all the opportunities an internet connection makes possible.

Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill gives Delaware an historic opportunity to make these critical investments, close our digital divide, and empower more of our neighbors with the tools and skills to get ahead in the digital age. Let’s get it done.

Markevis Gideon is the founder of NERDiT NOW.

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