How Non-Profits Help Close the Digital Divide

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A tour through the nitty gritty details of getting as many people as possible connected to the Internet.

By Rick Paulas

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(Photo: jeremybrooks/Flickr)

Picture the digital divide as a literal gap: a ragged canyon running through a desert. One side’s population has Internet access. They bring laptops to cafes, walk down the street with their phones out, stream Netflix, and have corners in their living room dedicated to their unwieldy desktop computers. The folks on the other side of the canyon have no access and live in an entirely different world.

But there are other people in this mental tableau.

Surrounding the gap are a multitude of dump trucks trying to fill it in, to allow the second group to mingle with the first. These are policymakers, computer literacy teachers, Internet service providers (ISPs) running infrastructure deep into the countryside. Among them are the dozens of non-profit organizations, places like Connected for Good, Close the Gap, and EveryoneOn, which work as liaisons between those without Internet access and places that offer it. To understand how these organizations work, it’s important to understand what’s keeping people offline: cost, accessibility, and a lack of digital literacy.

“I would argue there are not enough cooks. It’s so much work to do: There are 64 million people who are not connected to the Internet.”

The first one is the biggest.

“If [the three factors] are 100 percent of the problem, that’s 85 percent of it,” says Chike Aguh, CEO of EveryoneOn. It’s not just the monthly service cost, but the hefty one-time fees for installation and “renting” routers. “Those other fees put it out of reach for a lot of families.”

The most important step, then, is bringing down the fees. To accomplish that, people at EveryoneOn scan the various ISPs located throughout the country and find deals, or negotiate their own, to bring fees down to a level that’s realistic for low-income families. They list the deals on the non-profit’s site, along with the eligibility requirements needed to qualify. Families can also go to the site and input a zip code to see what’s available in their area.

Websites, however, are only good sources of information for people who have the Internet. And these people do not. A big part of the organization’s plan is putting boots on the ground, not just to alert people to these deals, but to quell any fears they have about this new digital frontier.

“You have to have someone on the ground that people know, and people trust, because you do get questions,” Aguh says. “I have kids and they need the Internet for homework, but I want to make sure they’re safe. I’m concerned about privacy, but I read people might be spying on me.” These questions can’t be answered by a website or even a phone call, so they meet people face-to-face. “We’re at the grocery stores, at the football games, the churches, the school picnics,” Aguh says. “We are wherever people are, so we can put these things in front of them and can get them signed up.”

But the digital divide isn’t just about potential adopters. There are also barriers on the supply side that non-profits try to bust through, and most of them are mental. One problem is that businesses aren’t entirely aware of the financial incentives that come with getting more people online. “If you think about it, businesses directly benefit from more people being online, whether its e-commerce, social media, health care, social services,” Aguh says. “All those companies have skin in the game because they’re going to directly benefit.”

EveryoneOn occasionally deals with shaping policy in Washington. “When we started, we were not a policy org,” Aguh says. “As we moved to D.C., we’ve been moved into conversations because of our on-the-ground expertise, so folks have asked us. We have not been quiet or shy about what our opinion is.” They voiced support for the recent tweak in the Lifeline subsidy that will allow $9.25 a month to be used for Internet service. “That’s a really big deal,” he says. “If we get that right, you have millions of people who will get access for dramatically lower costs.”

But that’s only the beginning, Aguh says. “How much time do you have?” he responds when I ask him about future policy changes EveryoneOn would like to see.

The next big issue they’re fighting for is “White Space,” the unused part of the television spectrum (the channels in between the low-number networks) that is similar enough to a 4G network that it can be used to bring broadband to rural areas. Why rural areas? Unlike standard Wi-Fi signals, which can make it through a few walls before deterioration, White Space can make it through about 10 kilometers’ worth of buildings and vegetation.

EveryoneOn is not alone in its pursuits. I ask Aguh if there has ever been a problem of too many unconnected non-profits all driving toward the same goal of getting everyone online. Is there ever a “too many cooks” problem?

“I would argue there are not enough cooks,” he says. “It’s so much work to do: There are 64 million people who are not connected to the Internet. We need more groups in more places doing this work. We can definitely always use more voices. Come one, come all.”

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