“I didn’t think I did digital inclusion, but I do,” the librarian said. “Yesterday I spent two hours helping a man apply for a fast-food job online. The company only takes applications online and he didn’t know how to do that.”

The librarian attended a roundtable session in Oklahoma City this summer, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. It was part of a larger study of how to bridge the digital divide.

Concerned that the digital economy was out of reach of low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, the Kansas City Fed community development team decided to investigate. It conducted one-on-one interviews and a national survey, as well as five roundtable sessions, and will release its report in 2019.

What is digital inclusion and why does it matter?

Digital inclusion means having access to affordable broadband, devices to connect to it and the skills to use the internet. These days, you have to get online to get an education, secure employment, use financial services and run small businesses. Rural or small communities without affordable broadband often struggle to attract jobs and residents.

Who did we ask about digital inclusion?

The Kansas City Fed’s community development team hosted a series of roundtables with community leaders. The goal? A deeper understanding of how the digital divide affects both urban and rural communities. Sessions were in Cheyenne, Wyo., Kansas City, Mo., Manhattan, Kan., Oklahoma City, Okla. and Omaha, Neb.

What did the community tell us about digital inclusion?

While each roundtable had its own local flavor, four themes showed up consistently.

Awareness is a critical issue

People said we need more awareness in two areas:

  • Awareness of innovative programs in other communities. During the forum in Omaha, a state official said, “We’re left with the 20 percent of the population that is hard to serve and expensive to reach, and this doesn’t come natural to them. We need to keep communication open about what’s working well. The worst thing we can do is have lots of great pilot programs growing up in isolation.
  • Increased awareness of and interaction with other local programs. At the Oklahoma City session, several people said either they were unaware of programs offered by other attendees, or were not in touch with them as often as they wished.    

Broadband maps are inaccurate

Rural communities often lack access to affordable broadband. State and federal efforts to provide it target the areas of greatest need. This relies on maps from the Federal Communications Commission that show where broadband is available. The maps have three issues:

  • Fixed broadband maps report availability at the census tract level. If just one house or business within the census tract has broadband, the entire census tract is considered “served” and, therefore, ineligible for help. Huge rural census tracts make the problem worse. In Wyoming, for example, the largest census tract covers 525 square miles.
  • Maps of wireless broadband coverage rely on data supplied by service providers, and have been criticized as being inaccurate. For example, the maps say Kansas is fully covered and that Oklahoma has just a few small areas lacking coverage.
  • The maps don’t show affordability. Smaller communities tend to have slower speeds but pay more. Participants in Nebraska reported paying $90 per month for 10 megabits per second (Mbps), whereas in Kansas City $40 per month can buy speeds of 100 Mbps.

Libraries are on the front line

The historical role of libraries is to provide access to information. Today, this often translates into providing training on basic digital skills so people can obtain resources, benefits, information and jobs online. Participants widely viewed librarians as being on the front line. In some rural communities, libraries offer the only publicly available broadband access or digital skill training.

Digital inclusion is central to economic and community development

In rural areas, people said a lack of broadband hurts their ability to recruit employers, educate students and keep young people from moving away. Both rural and urban representatives agreed that job skill training provides a path to higher paying digital careers. The programs can’t help, though, if their potential students lack access to broadband.

But what about action?

Along with the report, the Kansas City Fed has taken action. As part of a pilot program, the Bank recently donated 25 used computers to a community organization to assist in teaching digital skills to low-income students, and to help several of their parents finish high school and college degrees. The goal is to expand the program in 2019 while documenting the impact such donations may have in closing the digital divide. The Bank’s community development team also is working with communities in the Tenth District interested in forming collaborative projects to improve digital inclusion.

Author

Jeremy Hegle

Senior Community Development Advisor

Jeremy W. Hegle, a native Missourian, was 12 when he began helping on his grandfather’s farm. He later served in the Army National Guard, launched a business support organization…