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What is the digital divide?

The digital divide is an issue that affects millions of American's on a daily basis.

Imagine rushing to your local library before closing time after a long day of work or school. You arrive, check in, and sign up for the waitlist in the hopes that you’ll have a few minutes to check your email or browse job postings on the public computers. It took you days to update your resume, only being able to access a computer when the library is open and you were able to reserve your spot. One potential employer reached out to you late in the week but you had no way to respond over the weekend and worry about your chances at an interview.

For many Americans, the lack of computer and internet access presents an all too familiar struggle. The growing gap between those with digital access and those without is called the “digital divide.” Merriam Webster Dictionary defines this digital divide more specifically as “the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not”; a definition that captures the all-encompassing nature of the issue. This divide disproportionately affects rural areas, immigrant families, and households below the poverty line. According to Portland Metro’s 2014 Broadband Adoption Report, 10% of adults in our city have no access to the internet, including 28% of senior citizens. Of those with no internet access, 65% have an annual household income of less than $30,000. Additionally, 30% of Hispanic families have no internet access at home-- and nearly 42% of all adults stated they do not feel comfortable using a computer. The problem spans far and wide, affecting communities all across the United States.

In an effort to address the digital divide, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced The Digital Equity Act of 2019. "For far too many individuals and families—including those from communities of color, people with disabilities, low-income households, and rural communities—getting online isn’t so easy to do, and I strongly believe that in 2019, we shouldn’t be a country of haves and have-nots when it comes to using the internet,” Murray said in a statement promoting the bill for an article in The Hill.

The federal legislation would create the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program as a part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to support digital inclusion initiatives undertaken by organizations like Free Geek.  This program would help states and eligible organizations develop comprehensive digital equity plans. Specifically, the funding would directly support the building and operation of public computing centers, job skills training programs, and targeted digital inclusion efforts to help make technology available to marginalized populations at low or no cost. Additionally, the bill establishes the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, providing federal funding to states who wish to create an administrative entity to lead the charge in developing, implementing and overseeing the State’s Digital Equity Plan.

“I believe the future belongs to the connected,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st-century success.”

The impact of this legislation would be far-reaching; helping to bridge the digital divide nationwide. We are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, arguably on the coattails of the third industrial revolution (the digital revolution), where sweeping changes are brought about by digital computing and communication technology during (and after) the latter half of the 20th century. As we evolve alongside technology, our economy stays polarized against those born in low-income situations the digital divide continues to grow. This proposed bill would provide the necessary funding to organizations like Free Geek to continue championing necessary digital inclusion services. It’s imperative that we come together as a country to address the growing divide between those who have digital access and those who do not.

Whether it’s a student in need of a computer to complete their homework or a non-English speaking individual facing barriers to success, we work tirelessly to include EVERYONE in our digital future. The cornerstone of Free Geek’s mission is to help provide access to computers and skills training to those who need it the most; building a community that empowers people to reach their full potential. The computers and devices we gift through our digital inclusion programs are saved from ending up in landfills and instead go on to find a new life; providing our community’s most vulnerable populations with the digital literacy skills they need to succeed and participate in the world that folks with more access often take for granted. Here at Free Geek, we’re bridging the digital divide and changing lives, working to include folks left behind-- one computer at a time.