The pandemic brought a lot of awareness to the digital divide, the inequities between those who have access to the internet and the technology to use it and those who do not.
When schools and workplaces closed to stem the spread of COVID-19, communities came together to provide that access, but it was often in temporary ways. Hotspots can only go so far. As the world opens back up, the challenge going forward will be finding ways to permanently offer that digital access to people, overcoming economic challenges and offering training and other support.
Angela Siefer, founder and executive director of the Columbus-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance, doesn’t have to tell people there’s a digital divide very much anymore, or explain it in too much depth. Awareness of the issue has greatly increased, she said. Federal investments have increased, too. And communities are working to try to close the gap.
“We’ve gained a lot,” she said. “We’ve also learned a lot of lessons. And I think those lessons are important in how we think about this all moving forward.”
One big lesson was in how important the “human side” is to closing the digital divide, Siefer said. Just passing out hotspots isn’t enough; offering the necessary training, the technical support and the digital literacy education opportunities is critical.
The early days of the pandemic were about getting people the equipment they needed to close the gap quickly, said Jill Rizika, president and CEO of Towards Employment. To that end, the Cleveland-based workforce development organization built up a Chromebook and hotspot library.
Connectivity is still a challenge for many, Rizika said, but that has been eased some as public spaces like libraries opened back up.
But it became apparent that digital literacy was a hurdle, too. Towards Employment added more formal training in that space, including in digital etiquette as job interviews and jobs themselves become more virtual.
Organizations need to help people “find those bridges across the digital divide,” said Dorothy Baunach, chief executive of DigitalC. The connection is important, but so is being able to use it.
From March of 2020 to March of 2021, nonprofit internet provider DigitalC grew from about 80 customers to 800, Baunach said. In the next three to five years, she expects that customer base to grow to up to 40,000 as the organization scales up.
Much of that growth will be thanks to the Mandel and Myers foundations. In July, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Supporting Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation announced significant funding — $15 million from Mandel and another $5 million from the combined foundations — to support DigitalC.
The funding was to not only scale up the technology, but also its adoption. The organizations wanted to see DigitalC providing connectivity, as well as wraparound services like training and technical support, Baunach said.
On the connectivity side, growth taught DigitalC that it needed to change its approach.
As the organization worked to provide internet access to more …….