Spotlight on Digital Equity
Public libraries are instrumental in motivating integrity and fair play in the digital environment.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explains digital equity as a condition whereby all individuals and communities can fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy. But when compared with digital inclusion, digital equity is not always the same.
Digital equity typically refers to education, but it pertains to any industry or community where technology, especially internet access, is critical for success. Recent conversations often turn to the importance of digital equity in the workplace since the pandemic sent many employees home to work remotely or discontinued their positions altogether.
Digital equity describes a society where everyone can access the same online opportunities and resources. It’s also significant because it helps close the digital divide. Digital inclusion supports activities that ensure all US individuals can access and use affordable information and communication technologies, including:
- Reliable fixed and wireless broadband internet service,
- Internet-enabled devices that meet user needs,
- And applications and online content to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.
Have you heard about Digital Inclusion Week? It’s an annual awareness, recognition, and celebration week from October 2–6, 2023. Read more about it here.
The Digital Equity Act (DEA)
Introduced in April 2019 by US Senator Patty Murray (WA) and reintroduced in 2021, the DEA provides $2.75 billion over five years to promote digital equity, literacy, and inclusion initiatives at the local, state, and national levels. All types of libraries will be eligible to apply. The Act includes $65 billion to support multiple programs to bring broadband connectivity nationwide. The following are particularly relevant to libraries:
- The Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Grant program includes $42.5 billion to expand high-speed broadband access infrastructure, deployment, and adoption. Like the DEA, states will receive funds to develop five-year action plans and build capacity.
- The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), administered by the FCC, offers qualifying low-income households a monthly discount of up to $30 per month (up to $75 per month for homes on qualifying Tribal lands) and a one-time $100 discount toward a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet.
Libraries are actively involved in a significant digital equity ecosystem and often have long-established relationships with local and regional groups that libraries can leverage to accomplish community broadband equity goals for vulnerable populations. Since libraries have successfully advanced digital equity, states should also benefit from their expertise, experience, services, and existing connections at the state and local levels. Doing so avoids costly program duplication and expedites planning, development, implementation, and operational efficiency.
Creating a future with everyone fully connected and engaged online, communities must leverage assets, including nonprofits, internet service providers, businesses, government agencies, schools, etc., to collaborate in solving problems and implementing solutions. Community-based digital equity coalitions are growing nationwide, combining diverse groups’ backgrounds and expertise and the lived experiences of loosely connected and marginalized communities.
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What Causes Digital Exclusion and Inequality?
Like any injustices done to marginalized people, limiting or prohibiting access to digital technology and global connectivity is like denying them their fundamental rights. You can accomplish very little without the internet — whether used directly or through other means. Consider an incarcerated person about to be released. If that individual cannot retrieve housing information, job notices, or even the training to get a job, then they’re bound for a struggle.
But what are the most likely factors bearing on this or similar circumstances?
Since the start of the new millennium, every generation has inhabited a fully connected digital world. It is rare for children, teens, and young adults under thirty to avoid or not have access to the internet or related technology. In contrast, of those over sixty-five, 44 percent lack access or don’t use it due to poor education and lifestyle.
Wealthier people generally have more access to technology and the internet. And those who pursue higher education have more knowledge about its use and benefits. Divisions due to income, education, and social status are intrinsically linked to these gaps in all socioeconomic factors. Sadly, access gaps only expand socioeconomic gaps and inequalities.
Internet access is readily available in nearly all urban areas in the US. But those in rural areas and sometimes urban deserts often have limited high-speed internet access. Solving this problem means overcoming geographic, accessibility, and financial obstacles.
Race, Culture, and Language
Many of the issues mentioned above affecting internet and technology access also occur along racial, cultural, and language lines. These difficulties match other discrepancies like the wage gap, access to higher education, healthcare, and health-related environmental factors. For example, families who mainly speak non-English languages at home are less likely to use online resources since many are not accessible in an easy-to-process format.
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Digital Equity in Public Libraries
Public libraries are central to digital equity since it is generally one of their main goals. It’s been and continues to be a struggle, though. Library staff have extensive experience enabling digital access and skills building. They also have a demonstrated track record of public funding stewardship to meet the needs of people of all ages and backgrounds.
Still, one troubling roadblock is the variation among public library budgets and the ongoing need for busy library staff to apply for grants — especially for expensive, yet sorely needed, digital equipment. So, in October 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) released a report titled “Leveraging Libraries to Achieve Digital Equity for All.” The opening states that:
“New federal programs and resources through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provide an unprecedented opportunity to build on the existing infrastructure and expertise of our nation’s libraries to inform state digital equity plans and accelerate broadband adoption and skills building for all nationwide.”
Libraries and other public-serving entities are already applying for strategic capital funds, which a five-year state capacity implementation should follow.
Digital literacy must be grounded in basic literacy and extend beyond technical skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, and a lifelong learning mindset. Technology changes continually, and everyone needs to be aware of these changes to stay connected and adapt to new devices, platforms, and services.
Sustainable broadband adoption and full participation in the digital economy call for increased attention to skills building. Fortunately, libraries are highly trusted as information sources and places to find digital skills training.
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