Craig Settles: The Digital Divide is Back

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Craig Settles, author of Fighting the Next Good Fight for Broadband: A Planning Guide, explains that the digital divide is back. This is part three of a three part series by Mr. Settles for Dailywireless.

Also check out Part One: Partnering for Broadband Grants and Part Two: The Key to Sustainable Municipal Broadband: A Good Foundation.

The Digital Divide is Back

By Craig Settles

Remember the digital divide? In 2006 it was the face of public policy that launched a thousand municipal wireless projects.

From the biggest cities to the smallest hamlets, politicians couldn’t find news mics fast enough to proclaim a free WiFi to rid their community of this scourge. Until they realized that “free” wasn’t possible. Then digital divide disappeared from the front pages.

The digital divide is back as a discussion topic, though morphed into the politically acceptable “digital inclusion.” But will communities be more successful attacking the problem now that we have this promise of “free” money via broadband stimulus grants? We’re once again seeing a rallying to the cause inspired by that ever-popular four-letter word.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Digital inclusion isn’t free. It isn’t even cheap! To their credit, those disbursing grant money acknowledge that digital inclusion is more than Internet access; you need training and hardware for people who probably can’t afford either. But this is just the half of it.

First, a useful digital inclusion effort for even a moderate-size population is a major business operation requiring staff and money. Riverside, CA and Philadelphia set up nonprofit corporations, which they highly recommend doing to minimize bureaucratic entanglements and maximize effectiveness. This means upfront costs to create the entity that can be between $200,000 and a million dollars depending on the size of the city and other factors.

Expect annual operating costs that equal 50% of your startup costs. The nonprofits require a management team and staff, office facilities all the usual accoutrements. They have to raise money for running the office and the programs they create. Fundraising costs money.

You can’t just take in computers to re-distribute. You have to refurbish them, which takes longer than some think. If you want people from underserved areas to do the work so you keep money flowing into these communities, you have to recruit, train, manage and pay them. If the populations are chronically unemployed and have had limited exposure to technology, you have to work harder and more hours to create an efficient workforce.

Then there’s the effort to distribute hardware and serve constituents who are hard to reach, a challenge to train and whose success adopting and using the technology is not easy to track. Smart Riverside and Digital Impact Group (formerly Wireless Philadelphia) have waged the equivalent of trench warfare to partner with dozens of nonprofits that help target and deliver the technology and training. It’s painstaking work serving 100 people here, 70 people there.

Digital Impact Group CEO Greg Goldman believes “you cannot have a meaningful digital inclusion program unless it addresses all four of the main barriers to underserved communities participating in the digital economy: complexity, cost, literacy and experience. You must resolve all four issues.” Your grant proposal needs to show you understand the total money and time costs related to serious digital inclusion, which is part of the sustainability discussion I started last week, and how your plan covers these.

Expect more on this subject in an analysis report to be released soon.

Craig Settles

Craig Settles is an industry analyst, President of broadband strategy consulting firm and author of “Fighting the Next Good Fight for Broadband: A Planning Guide”. Check out Craig’s blog on business mobile app strategy, too.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 at 3:11 pm .