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Jordan Commentary: Bridging the digital divide

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2010-11-01

Bringing high speed Internet access to all of Vermont is an oft-repeated and excellent goal for the state. There are countless ways that the Internet can, and does, improve the lives of Vermonters. Businesses have a tool for connecting with customers. Families can stay in touch no matter where each generation has put down roots. Citizens can get engaged with government activities from the town select board to Washington, D.C., including navigating state services without a trip to Montpelier. Not only can current students find a whole new range of learning opportunities, but Vermonters of any age have a chance for ongoing education, whether watching lectures from the nation's most prestigious universities or downloading an audio book from our public libraries.

The 2010 Vermonter Poll found approximately 69 percent of Vermont households had access to high speed Internet, slightly better than the national average. The State of Vermont plans to push that number up to almost 100 percent within the next three years.

Unfortunately, even if that access gap closed tomorrow it still would not solve the problem of the divide between people who are able to use high speed Internet to its full advantage, and those who can't. Having broadband available doesn't mean a household will subscribe . . . . and even with a subscription, we know many Vermonters don't have the skills to take full advantage of Internet-based tools. The barriers of adoption and knowledge still prevent Vermonters from being at ease navigating all the online resources available to them, and those barriers continue even if high speed infrastructure is available.

The Federal Communications Commission recently found that half of the adults who don't subscribe to broadband cite lack of interest or skills as the primary reason. The online world changes constantly -- it's not easy to sort through the noise and find the tools that can actually be helpful. Things like Facebook and Twitter were cutting edge a technological generation ago, now they are basic tools that many people assume everyone can use. Plus, knowing how to use these tools is only the first step in building meaningful projects for bigger goals like promoting local businesses, connecting neighbors, and encouraging community involvement. We know that rural communities worldwide are embracing the Internet as a key part of their community and business development goals and we don't want Vermont left behind.

The e-Vermont Community Broadband Project is one program targeting the needs that remain after infrastructure arrives. Led by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, 8 e-Vermont partner organizations work with selected Vermont communities on projects that include bringing netbooks and teacher training to elementary schools, providing free Web skills workshops to community members, upgrading computer equipment at public libraries, offering free one-on-one advising to small businesses, connecting neighbors through Front Porch Forum and enhancing (or launching) town websites.

In addition to the core services brought by partners, towns set their own priority projects, such as creating free wi-fi spots downtown, enhancing public access TV, making historic documents available online or discovering a better way to promote themselves to tourists and attract new businesses.

Eliminating Vermont's digital divide doesn't end at providing infrastructure. Vermont needs to invest in becoming a fully connected state and that includes continually exploring what can happen after the infrastructure is in place. This ongoing work is part of the mission for e-Vermont and other organizations across the state.

Helen Labun Jordan is the project director for the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project.