Digital Literacy: Who’s Responsible?

Digital Literacy: Who is responsible for sharing all the advantages of broadband?Before we answer the Digital Literacy question, lets take a little refresher course in Economics, remember widgets?

Economics 101 taught us that if you develop a widget, in order to profit from it, you need a market in which to sell it. Therefore, if your widget is a hat that keeps your entire body warm with some edgy thermal-technology, you target your market and sell your product in really cold places where buyers should be lining up to purchase the latest and greatest technology. They probably already have hats, but yours is better. That’s a good business model: you make money, and whether your hat allows folks to enjoy more outside recreation or work more efficiently outdoors, you fill a need. And… everyone knows how to wear a hat.

Now consider a fictional, but similarly frigid place where no one has ever seen a hat. They still need them, but don’t even know they exist, or what to do with a hat. This group is particularly vulnerable; they can’t keep warm in the cold, probably are less productive, and have a poorer quality of life. This can still be a good business model because these people REALLY need your product, but you have to educate them about not only the benefits of your product, but also how to use it.

If Broadband is the Widget….

Now, if broadband – more specifically fiber optics – is your widget, who is your market? Having expounded on the benefits of broadband internet, we know there is one. Actually, there are two:

  • The first is the population who knows the benefits of, and how to use the technology – likely because they already have access to it at some level. They will line up to buy the latest and greatest.
  • The second, where the digital divide exists, is more like the fictitious hat market we mentioned. This population may or may not know of the technology, or may not fully understand its benefits or uses.

Rural America is one of those places: the American Farm Bureau is a champion for farming and agriculture, including bringing broadband to rural farming communities — where the digital divide is the most challenging.

Should the government be responsible for expanding broadband to rural areas?

Should the government be responsible for expanding broadband to rural areas?

Why Not Start Building?

Adding to the challenge of broadband providers attempting to bridge the digital divide is that when considering expansion in these rural areas, they must consider the return on their investment. Providers need people to buy their widget – in this case broadband services. That’s where digital literacy, or creating the market comes into the equation.

Then Start Teaching!

One might argue that it is incumbent on providers to educate their prospective market, and to a degree, that is true. However, in the interest of the societal benefits of accessible broadband, the task of educating the public needs to be a combined effort on the part of government, the education community, and the broadband providers.  We’re doing our part: sponsoring FREE adult computer classes in all of our communities, starting with Gray – New Gloucester.

Just how do we do this?

A great example of such a collaboration is everyoneon.org. The organization is working to bring digital literacy and affordable connectivity to under-served populations across the country by fostering partnerships with government, social service agencies, schools, and providers.  In Maine there are several initiatives in the works as individual providers and a few non-profit entities are pooling resources to provide free digital literacy training. Unity based Unitel is one such company, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a consortium of local providers, is currently investigating ways to provide free digital literacy training in the communities served by its members. In addition to the TAM initiative, OTELCO, is also independently working within the communities it serves to develop and sponsor digital literacy training.

Bottom Line: Digital Literacy Education has benefits to society that far exceed the direct benefit to the individuals we train, therefore the responsibility to provide that training should be shared by ALL who are in a position to provide it.

Download OTELCO's Free Municipal Broadband Guide