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Broadband Important to Jobs, Education and Economic Mobility

John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, was keynote speaker for the 2019 Baltimore Data Day session held at the Richmond Fed's Baltimore branch. An expert in his field, Horrigan explained how lower-income and racial minority households are disproportionately disconnected from access to the internet.

By Peter M. Dolkart

Internet access has become a critical tool to obtain an education, conduct business, utilize banking services and secure employment. A growing number of teachers regularly assign homework that requires internet access and more employers expect job seekers to apply for work opportunities online. Still, access to these digital resources is not equally distributed in both rural and urban communities.

During the opening of the 2019 Baltimore Data Day Keynote Session, Digital Access and Equity in Baltimore City in Baltimore, presenters discussed the rural and urban disparities as well as the larger implications for communities like Baltimore that lack adequate internet access. The first session of the two-day event was hosted at the Richmond Fed’s Baltimore branch on July 11. Community leaders, nonprofit organizations, governmental entities and civic-minded citizens gathered to learn the latest trends in community-based data, technology and tools and how other groups are using data to support and advance constructive change. This annual program, now in its 10th year, is a partnership between the Richmond Fed’s Community Development team and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.

The ability to track the actual number of households lacking access to the internet in Baltimore differs according to the source. Research cited by the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance, for instance, showed that 24.6 percent of households lacked internet access between 2013 and 2017. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey reports a minimum of 57,000 homes without internet access, ranking Baltimore 261 out of the 296 cities surveyed. But a 2017 joint study by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and the Media Democracy Fund reports 74,116 households lack internet access.

John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, explained how lower-income and racial minority households are disproportionately disconnected from the internet. This disadvantage, he said, presents particular concerns for communities like Baltimore where the median household income is $42,665, and per capita income is $25,290, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey and 2015 population estimates. The income levels are significantly lower than the overall numbers for the state of Maryland.

A nationally recognized expert for his research into barriers to home broadband adoption, Horrigan previously served as research director for the development of the National Broadband Plan at the Federal Communications Commission. During his keynote remarks, he addressed several myths about internet access. One myth, he said, is that the digital divide is rooted in weak network infrastructure deployment. But people without residential broadband subscriptions are located in non-rural areas by a 3:1 ratio, he said.

Horrigan also discerned between the circumstances where weak network deployment impedes access and where economic and educational barriers cause “low-adoption” of internet use in households. Individuals who lack an understanding about the economic and educational benefits available through internet use are also less likely to seek and demand access to it, he noted. Horrigan said non-adoption is cited nearly five times more often as the cause of low usage than weak network deployment, and is most pronounced in areas with the highest concentration of poverty, such as in West and East Baltimore neighborhoods. A combination of weak networks and a practice of non-adoption among poor households leads to the greatest disparities in cities with high poverty rates, Horrigan added. One way to help mitigate the problem, he offered, is to provide digital skills training at community anchor institutions, schools and libraries.

When an audience member asked Horrigan if smartphones could help close the digital divide, he responded that in 2018 research showed that 20 percent of all adults have a smartphone but no home broadband. These so-called “smartphone only” users are at the low-income level — 31 percent, compared to 9 percent who are upper middle-income and above. As a result, he said, individuals are limited in their ability to fill out a job applications or complete homework assignments online.

Jane Brown, executive director of the Baltimore based Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, and Amalia Deloney, director of programs for the Media Democracy Fund, presented a 2017 report on digital access in Baltimore. Through numerous interviews with leaders from the government, nonprofit and private sectors, the researchers identified specific factors that contributed to the Baltimore’s digital access problem, including a perceived lack of city leadership and collaboration among government sectors. For example, the city does not have a chief technology officer or broadband coordinating council to make executive decisions. Additionally, survey respondents voiced skepticism about government initiatives, such as efforts to offer residents financial incentives, as well as a lack of proper outreach and messaging from a trusted community leader.

Market forces and inadequate hardware further imped widespread broadband access, according to Brown and Deloney. The city lacks service provider options and almost 20 percent of its households are without a computer. While some libraries and public schools provide internet access, most low-income residents rely exclusively on cell phones where internet functionality is limited. Katherine Trujillo of Libraries Without Borders, an international nonprofit working to expand access to information, education and technology, presented the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI). Launched in 2016, the program provides access to digital learning and economic mobility by creating computer libraries and work areas within neighborhood laundromats. So far, Trujillo said, results show that children were 30 times more likely to participate in educational activities when at a laundromat housing digital resources. When an early childhood librarian was present for regular visits at these laundromats, the children’s literary interactions averaged 45 minutes.

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