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VIEWPOINT: Biden’s broadband push demands rethinking education

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In his State of the Union address, President Biden cited “affordable high-speed internet for every American” as a compelling national imperative.  His historic infrastructure legislation provides nearly $15 billion in subsidies to make broadband service essentially free for low-income Americans.

Sadé Truiett | PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST STATE EDUCATE

But few policymakers inside the Beltway are asking the tough questions about what happens if millions still don’t sign up. There is plenty of evidence that free or near-free broadband helps narrow the digital divide, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem – not even close.

President Obama’s former Cabinet Secretary, Broderick Johnson, recently nailed it in summing up the challenge: “My offering you free piano lessons isn’t going to get you to play if you’re not interested in music.”

There’s no silver bullet for convincing low-income, marginalized communities left behind by the digital age to get online. It’s a multi-dimensional problem requiring a multi-dimensional response.

Fortunately, we have strong foundation on which to build. About 96% of Delaware already has super-fast internet service available, and providers have made a huge dent in the digital divide – connecting more than 10 million Americans – by offering low-income families service for only $10 a month. The federal government’s new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) now picks up this full tab – up to $30 a month – for families in need.

But despite broadband’s wide availability and these historic steps to close the gap, one in four households across our state still don’t sign up. About 11% get their only connectivity through a smartphone.

To close these gaps, we should start with digital literacy.

An estimated 75% of eighth grade students lack digital proficiency, according to a nationwide study. Among adults, one in three workers don’t have basic digital skills. Behind these stats are real people, each stuck on the sidewalk as a parade of digital opportunities – better education, better jobs, better quality of life – marches past just out of their reach.

Here, change starts in our schools, with modernized curricula that integrate technology into learning across every subject. We must equip kids from an early age with the basics – online safety, basic navigation, where and how to look for information about the subjects they’re studying. Then we can build on these basics over time – teach how to separate credible sources from junk, and how to digitally collaborate with peers. By the end of the decade, 90% of all jobs will require digital skills; today’s lesson plans need to prepare our kids for tomorrow’s reality.

We also need to empower schools to serve as evangelists and navigators to spread the word far and wide about ACP. Only one in four families eligible for the new program have signed up. Schools already have the reach into families’ daily lives – and the trust and credibility – to break through this awareness gap, get the word out, and even stand at parents’ elbow to help them through the sign-up process.

Beyond schools, we need an all-hands-on-deck, neighborhood-wide effort to reach and convert the skeptics who are alienated from the digital world, for whatever reason. About 71% of adults without a home internet connection say they’re just not interested, aligning with the 72% who say they get everything they need out of a smartphone.

But there’s more to the internet than Tik-Tok challenges and Wordle; the truly life-changing possibilities that an internet connection opens up – working from home, earning an online degree, launching an online business – demand more than just a phone.

We need to engage peers and neighbors who’ve taken this leap – and seen their lives dramatically change as a result – to tell their stories to the holdouts. Delaware needs to invest in outreach initiatives, pilot programs, and experiments to understand what messages – and messengers – move the needle, and then invest to scale up the programs that really work. Stimulating the curiosity of the unconnected is the holy grail in this mission.

Some activists and lobbyists would prefer to use these funds to get local city halls to build their own broadband networks. But leaving aside city-owned broadband networks’ troubling track record of financial struggles, this “solution” completely misdiagnoses the problem. We need to teach the skills and excite the minds of students and parents in unconnected households – not waste years and scarce resources hoping duplicative infrastructure will magically do that.

Equipping every Delawarean with the skills, means, and curiosity to thrive in the digital economy can be our generation’s Moonshot. The infrastructure bill gives us the resources to achieve this vision. Let’s not fumble this chance.

Sadé Truiett is the director of advocacy and partnerships for First State Educate, a statewide education advocacy organization.

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