Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Helen Labun Jordan, project director of the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project at the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Find their work online at www.e4vt.org.
The good news is that a little more than a year from now, Vermont will have broadband infrastructure that reaches every house in our state. In fact, according to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, almost 95 percent of Vermont buildings already fall within broadband coverage.
The bad news is that building infrastructure alone doesn’t solve the problem of the digital divide. Closing the digital divide isn’t only a matter of technology reaching everyone – it’s also how Vermonters are able to use that technology. We aren’t building access to broadband for its own sake, we’re building access to broadband so that Vermonters can take advantage of the opportunities this tool brings, whether that’s growing a business, furthering your education, finding government services or simply staying in touch with friends and family.
Vermont isn’t alone. A significant digital divide exists across this country, particularly in rural regions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported in August that they continue to fall behind in their 1996 congressional mandate to bring broadband to all Americans. The problem, they report, is not only uneven infrastructure build-out, but also uneven adoption of Internet once it becomes available. For example, according to the FCC, adoption rates at the “speed benchmark” (4 Mbps / 1 Mbps. . . or fast enough for a high quality video conference) is only 40 percent even though more than 90 percent of American households have access to this speed of Internet service.
The 40 percent number doesn’t tell the whole story, either. We know from experience that even if a household does subscribe to high speed Internet, that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem because members of the household still need to know how to effectively use their new Internet access. That knowledge is not as simple as turning on a computer. At today’s pace of innovation, everyone who wants to stay up to date needs to constantly learn new tools — and that task is much more daunting if you don’t know where, or how, to begin.
Returning to the good news side of the equation, Vermont is well positioned to truly close its digital divide.
Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege of working throughout the state with a team of partner organizations, led by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, who are helping close the divide that remains even after broadband infrastructure is built. Under the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project, this team worked with towns to improve the use of online tools in education, business, libraries, municipal government, community connections, and basic digital literacy.
The e-Vermont final report, published at e4vt.org, provides lessons learned and resources to help communities create public Internet access, teach basic Internet skills, start using online tools for business, integrate technology into the classroom, encourage civic engagement, begin community-wide online conversations, design beginner-friendly websites, and build digital archives of local history.
Vermont has moved aggressively to start closing the digital divide through building our broadband infrastructure. In 2013, we need to move just as aggressively to finish the job.