Bridging the Digital Divide is a challenge we all face. As communication technologies advance at warp speed and everyday life becomes more dependent on the Internet, it is critical to ensure that everyone can access all that the Internet has to offer.
Although we, as providers, continually strive to deliver reliable high-speed Internet access, it is also incumbent upon us to provide the tools that subscribers need to maximize the benefit of that connectivity. To that end, we have committed to provide free Digital Literacy training in the communities we serve.
The Digital Divide
OTELCO is one of several Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) in Maine. As ILECs, we do not compete with each other in the specific local footprints we serve, but in the competitive market – outside of those footprints– we do sometimes compete. UniTel in Unity is another ILEC in Maine and has been the inspiration for OTELCO to address the digital divide through digital literacy classes.
UniTel, in collaboration with the Unity Foundation, and Axiom Technologies, has been providing free computer classes for folks in Albion, Burnham, Dixmont, Knox, Newburgh, Thorndike, Troy, Unity, Unity Township, Belfast and the surrounding towns since 2015. As of December 2016, UniTel reported that 507 classes had been held with 951 students participating and logging over 4,000 hours of classroom instruction.
At OTELCO, having learned about UniTel’s digital divide initiative, we investigated options to provide similar training in the areas we serve. In the spring of 2016, OTELCO offered its first 6-week course through the MSAD 15 Gray – New Gloucester Adult Education program. Since then, the course has been offered 10 times in four of OTELCO’s six ILEC service areas.
How We Do It
The UniTel digital literacy model offers 28 different classes in six locations that include introduction to computers, Internet safety, QuickBooks, WordPress, and a myriad of applications and social media options. The Axiom Education and Training Center (AETC) is teaching the classes that are funded in part by the Unity Foundation. Established in 2000 by Bert & Coral Clifford, the Unity Foundation supports Maine nonprofits, and partners with other organizations, to meet the needs of Maine citizens through education and community development. AETC is a not-for-profit entity that was the brainchild of broadband provider, Axiom Technologies.
Because of the wide geographic area that OTELCO serves, it was more efficient to work with individual education providers in those specific locations. Upon an assessment of the courses already being offered through the various adult education programs we contacted, we decided that a 6-week computer basics class was the best way to proceed. The six-week course addresses the history of computers and the Internet, hardware basics, various Windows operating systems, basic software and web surfing applications, security, the Cloud, email, and Internet safety.
What the programs have in common is quite interesting:
- Classes fill quickly, emphasizing a real need
- More than 75% of the participants are at least 55 years of age
As Maine’s median age continues to climb, helping that demographic be more comfortable with technology is key to aging in place, telemedicine, and all that the Internet of Things offers for quality of life and place.
The Digital Divide and Coopetition
OTELCO, UniTel and Axiom Technologies are occasional competitors, yet that does not stop us from working together and sharing our knowledge and experience to help bridge the digital divide by providing free digital literacy training in the areas we serve.
The Digital Divide Take-away
- Digital Literacy Initiatives will help bridge the digital divide
- Internet Service Providers are, can, and should, be part of the solution
- Cooperation between competing providers, “coopetition”, can help achieve the goal
- There is no cookie cutter solution: in the case of UniTel, a single education provider can meet the needs of the community it serves, and in the case of OTELCO, several providers work best. In other communities, the model may be something entirely different.
- We can all work together to bridge the digital divide one community at a time.
Please feel free to contact either of us for more information about how we’re doing our part; it may help you do yours.