Today, The Washington Post hosted an event about a subject we take very seriously at Comcast: closing the digital divide. This is the second time in three years The Post has gathered together policy makers, elected officials, tech experts, and entrepreneurs to discuss the challenges we all face while trying to attack the digital divide, as well as share stories about the good progress that is being made.
We heard from Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Commissioner Ajit Pai, Federal Communications Commission, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, City of Chicago, Mayor Bill Peduto, City of Pittsburgh, John Horrigan, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center, Maya Wiley, Counsel to the Mayor, City of New York, and many others who share a common goal of trying to solve this difficult problem.
At Comcast, we’re proud of the fact that we’ve been doing our part. Since 2011, and especially in the last two years, we’ve made significant progress. Our Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost, high-speed Internet access to low-income families, has more than doubled its impact. In 2013, we had connected 220,000 families to the Internet. Today, more than 500,000 families have signed up, benefitting more than 2 million low-income Americans.
This success is due in large part to our thousands of partners nationwide, from nonprofit organization and educators to elected officials, such as Mayor Emanuel who spoke about how technology is important, but nothing replaces a great teacher. To his credit, in Chicago, more than 30,000 households have been connected to the Internet at home through the Internet Essentials program, benefitting 120,000 residents – more than in any other city in the country. In fact, Comcast and the City of Chicago received the U.S. Conference of Mayors Outstanding Award for Public/Private Partnerships for our collaborative efforts.
We also heard today about a number of innovative programs and promising emerging technologies. For example:
Luke Swarthout, Director of Adult Education Services at The New York Public Library, talked about an innovative program they’re running with 10,000 Wi-Fi-enabled devices that low-income families can check out for a year so they can have Internet service at home.
Mayor Peduto complimented Breezie, a tech company with roots in his city, which is designing a customizable, tablet-based experience for seniors that makes using the Internet easy to check email, watch video, share pictures, and access websites.
Thomas Kamber, Executive Director of Older Adults Technology Services, spoke about how technology has the potential to change how we age in America. From telemedicine, to health monitoring, to smart-wearable devices, there’s another use for the Internet that can help cross physical barriers to improving health care for seniors.
Stephen Ewell, Executive Director of the CEA Foundation, discussed emerging technologies like audio screen readers that can help the blind and vision-impaired enjoy and use the Internet.
In our experience, what is clear is that no one company, no one non-profit, and no single government program, can solve the problem of the digital divide alone. The greatest challenge continues to be overcoming issues of relevancy and digital literacy, because if someone doesn’t see the value of the Internet or understand how to use it, then you can’t convince them that they need it.
Earlier this summer, we announced we’re going to extend Internet Essentials, on a pilot basis, to two new groups: low-income seniors and low-income community college students. Seniors, in particular, face huge challenges adopting new technologies.
As Patrick J. Franklin, President and CEO of the Urban League of Palm Beach County, Florida, told me, "Teaching seniors how to use the Internet is like teaching them a new language."
As any adult who has ever tried to learn a new language knows, it’s really hard work. It takes time and perseverance. You need to practice a lot to get fluent, and you can’t do it alone. You also need a classroom, and you need a great teacher.
There were two big takeaways from today. First, different populations need customized solutions designed to address their unique needs. In other words, a "one-size-fits-all" approach will not work. Instead, we need programs that cater to cultural differences, to learning differences, to disabilities, and to concerns that seniors may have about technology.
Second, the major barrier to closing the digital divide – by a wide margin – is the comingled issues of digital literacy and digital relevance. Those who choose to ignore this universal truth – based on all the research that has been conducted – and focus exclusively on issues like the cost of Internet service, risk real failure in the shared task of closing the digital divide.
Perhaps no other comment summed up the day more eloquently than Secretary Castro. He spoke about the fact that we’re living in a 21st century global economy and to succeed everyone needs 21st century tools.
As a result, he said, "The Internet is key to economic development and academic achievement so that everyone has a chance to achieve the American dream."
I encourage you to watch all of the great speakers who have invested their time and energy to address this important issue here.
Working together and listening to each other, I don’t doubt we can build many bridges across the digital divide so that different populations, no matter the color of their skin, how much money they make, how old they are, or what level of education they have, can be connected to the amazing and transformative power of the Internet.