How We Can Close California’s Digital Divide

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Author: Kish Rajan

California is the center of technological innovation. Our state is home to tech companies that are changing people’s lives all over the world. But there is still a small sliver of Californians, about 1.3 percent of the population, who live in areas where there isn’t access to the Internet, according to a recent study.

And about one in five people who have access don’t use the Internet. There are many different reasons why people don’t go online. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of adults who don’t use the Internet say they don’t find it relevant to their lives. Another 32 percent say they find the Internet too difficult to use.

This points to a real problem. The Internet today is about so much more than cat videos and social media. Don’t get me wrong — those things are great. But people can now use the Web to apply for jobs, sign up for health care and stay in touch with loved ones. People who believe the Internet is irrelevant, or too difficult to use, are increasingly isolating themselves from their communities and society as a whole.

This is the modern digital divide or as we call it, Digital Divide 2.0. Almost everyone has access to the Internet. Even people who may not have a broadband line to their house can access the Internet through their schools and libraries. According to a recent study by James E. Prieger, an associate professor of economics and public policy at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, access isn’t the biggest problem. He writes: “… the main barrier to increased adoption is not access but the value proposition for consumers.”

So what can be done to improve the value proposition of the Internet for the select few who are abstaining? One good fix would be to modernize our communications policies to focus on closing the Digital Divide 2.0. California’s communications laws actually encourage people to stay isolated on phone lines, which keeps them shut away from a wide world of information. We have to re-imagine the goal of communications policy, which in the 1950s began and ended with making sure people had access to a phone.

Now, we need to all admit that’s not nearly enough. California’s policies need to encourage consumers and companies to all make the leap from dumb phones hooked up to copper wires to smart devices connected to broadband networks.

It’s no wonder that people say they find the Internet irrelevant if they’re not connected. The minute they start Skyping with their grandchildren … or save themselves a drive across town to the doctor’s office … or take their first class online their opinion may change.

There’s no question that we need to make sure everyone can have Internet access to their home. Programs like the federal Lifeline program, which now offers government subsidies to pay for broadband connections, and the California Advanced Services Fund can help bring the Web to California’s remaining people who don’t have access or haven’t yet gotten online.

Prieger’s study shows that we can do this by first eliminating barriers to deploying and upgrading broadband. On price, most service providers already offer a low-cost broadband option for those that qualify and the state could alter voice line subsidies to apply to broadband to make Internet access more affordable. Local communities can continue to do the work of making sure people know how to use the Internet and that they are digitally savvy enough to do the basics and perhaps far more.

In this way, we will truly close the digital divide and give all of California’s residents access to the greatest generator of prosperity in our lifetime. On phones, people can talk. That’s not enough. Online, people can build businesses, find work in the personal enterprise economy and participate in their communities. It’s the future that California should be striving for.