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ISPs and the Digital Divide

It seems almost monthly that I am asked about the role that ISPs should take in making sure we solve the digital divide. I think people are somewhat shocked every time when I tell them this is not a role for ISPs.

In explaining my answer, let me start by parsing what is meant by the question. We are about to see a lot of grant funding for getting computers into homes and training folks on how to use them. The folks asking this question are hopeful that ISPs are going to take up that role in any meaningful way. The reality is that is rarely going to happen—and it’s not something we should be expecting from ISPs.

ISPs are in the business of building broadband networks and keeping them running. That’s a full-time job. I think that people assume that ISPs want new customers badly enough that they are willing to tackle the digital divide efforts needed so that folks know how to use broadband. An ISP’s role in solving the digital divide is to bring the broadband to homes willing to buy broadband. To use the old analogy of the three-legged stool, the ISP function is to provide the broadband connection—it’s up to somebody else to tackle the other issues of computers and training.

I don’t think that the folks asking this question understand the challenge involved in helping somebody to cross the digital divide. You can’t just hand out computers to homes that don’t have them. A computer is a brick for a household where nobody knows how to use it. It takes a lot of one-on-one effort to sit with people and help them learn how to navigate the possibilities of broadband.

There are programs around that have been doing this the right way. I’ve been told by several folks who train folks that the key to getting somebody to learn to use a computer is to help them to accomplish something they want to do. That’s different for everybody. It might mean helping them look for a job, talk with relatives on social media, search for knitting patterns, or learn a new language—it doesn’t matter what it is, but helping a new computer user to accomplish something useful is the way to prove to them that a computer and broadband is a useful tool.

My firm has been doing broadband surveys for many years, and we’ve noticed that folks will not admit to being afraid or intimated by computers and technology. Folks won’t tell you that the reason they can’t use a computer is that they can’t read very well. But the folks that do computer training tell me that these are some of the basic reasons folks don’t or won’t use computers. Somewhere in the past, they tried and failed, and they don’t want to do that again.

I remember twenty years ago when cable modems and DSL were new that there were computer training courses everywhere. There were free classes in most towns teaching how to use Excel or Word. The training classes were held in computer labs with twenty students at a time—and the training was largely an abysmal failure. While those skills are important for many jobs, they are not things that most people will regularly use, if ever. But somehow, it became accepted that teaching those skills was the way to make folks computer literate. These classes were mostly such a colossal failure that the training courses died out within a few years and were not replaced. We’ve largely gone two decades where there has been no formal forum for folks to learn how to use a computer except to sit with a friend or relative that would take the time to teach them. And this is a shame. There is an immense richness of content on the web today—there is something for everybody.

But back to my original premise of the blog. ISPs do not have the resources to dedicate employees to sit with folks to learn how to use a computer and navigate the web. Some of the big ISPs have given the impression that they are doing this for folks—but that is mostly done for public relations purposes.

There are some ISPs that might be willing to take up this challenge. Some municipal or cooperatives might take a stab at solving the digital divide. I could see some of them using grant money to develop a great program for teaching computer use. But even that is going to be a challenge because the main focus of these ISPs is like every other ISP—to keep the network operating. We don’t expect car companies to teach us to drive. We don’t expect banks to teach us how to be wise with our money. We really can’t expect ISPs to teach folks how to use computers.

Communities that want to solve the digital divide issues should look elsewhere—perhaps at existing non-profits. There are some local governments that are going to take a stab at this. If no such group exists, then use grant money to kick-start the effort.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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