Wired/Unwired: Madison's Digital Divide is an Issue of Both Access and Skills

At 63, Linda Miess is looking for a new job. She works part-time at a bus company, part-time at a cleaning job, and she wants something more stable.

The problem: everything associated with searching and applying for a job is online these days.

“To even get a job, you have to have some knowledge of a computer,” Miess says while sitting in the Literacy Network’s computer lab on South Park Street.

She has been taking classes at the Literacy Network since September, learning how to navigate Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and email. She has learned a lot, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It was very frustrating, very frustrating — all of it,” she says.

Miess is one of thousands of Madison residents dealing with a jump in technology that has left them lagging in skills, access or both. The Internet is now central to everything, from applying for a job or signing your kid up for soccer to accessing the news and paying utilities, and 13 percent of Madison’s households don’t have access, according to 2013 U.S. Census data.

This is the digital divide.

Consisting of both access and usability issues, this divide is the subject of many conversations about education and equality in Madison, a city that considers itself highly educated and thoroughly “wired.”

The city is exploring how it can provide Internet service to challenged neighborhoods; libraries and other organizations are teaching digital literacy skills and schools are implementing new technology programs to equip students with tablets and computers.

“The Internet is really not a luxury anymore,” says Madison chief information officer Paul Kronberger. “It’s really a day-to-day necessity for almost everybody.”

The barriers

Starkly tied to income, age, race and educational attainment, the technology gap tends to disadvantage people who are already struggling.

People over 65 or who didn’t graduate high school are far less likely to have broadband access at home, and Hispanic and black households are less likely to have broadband in the home than white households, according to U.S. Census data.

Worthington Park Neighborhood Association president Alfonso Flores says a common assumption is that everyone is online, has a Facebook account or can access email listservs.

Less than 60 percent of Americans making less than $50,000 a year had broadband access in their homes in 2013, according to Pew Research data.

“Everybody’s connected who needs to be connected — that’s the unspoken part of that sentence,” Flores says. “And that’s kind of warped.”

According to 2013 Pew Research data, about 15 percent of Americans don’t go online at all and about 15 percent go online but don’t have access from home.

For lower-income families, cost is the biggest obstacle to Internet access: It’s expensive.

Charter Communications, for example, offers broadband Internet by itself for $40 per month for a year, jumping to $55 per month the next year. When bundled with telephone or TV, the Internet itself is cheaper, but the total bill runs above $90 or $100 per month. For someone working full-time at minimum wage, that’s almost a tenth of their monthly wages.

“If you’re making decisions about utilities or food or gas in your car to get to work, Internet — it goes,” says Alyssa Kenney, executive director of the Kennedy Heights Community Center.

For 35-year-old Hmong immigrant Ma Thao’s family, her husband’s income brings in enough to cover the basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, utilities. They have a laptop at home but must go elsewhere for Internet access or attempt to connect to the Kennedy Heights Community Center’s Wi-Fi.

“It’s very hard, because then the children aren’t able to do their homework,” Thao says, using an interpreter.

She speaks Hmong and Thai and uses the Internet to watch news from back home or educational videos on learning English. Taking her children elsewhere for access means having to figure out a time to get them together and travel.

“It creates a hassle and it’s inefficient, and it’s also dangerous,” she says.

Less than 60 percent of Americans making less than $50,000 a year had broadband access in their homes as of 2013, whereas 91 percent of those making more than $75,000 a year had broadband at home, according to Pew Research data.

“Despite the impression that everyone has a computer or has access to the Internet, there’s still an enormous gap in our community that needs to be bridged,” says Madison Public Library director Greg Mickells.

Extending service into households

To help bridge that access gap, many libraries and community centers offer free Internet access, though it’s often in high demand.

Mickells says the Internet support at the library is one of its most popular services and its popularity continues to grow. About 1,800 people use the work stations across Madison Public Library’s nine branches on average every day.

At Kennedy Heights Community Center, Kenney says people sit on the front steps to access the wireless, even when the building is closed.

With such high demand, many in Madison are now working on how to extend Internet access into homes, with the library exploring the possibility of offering hot spots — small devices that connect to the Internet via cellular networks — for check-out. The city of Madison is looking into the creation of a municipal network for certain neighborhoods.

About five years ago, the city started constructing an extensive fiber network, called the Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network, or MUFN, in conjunction with 15 other groups. It consists of a fiber-optic backbone running through Madison and laterals connecting buildings to the network. That system offers speeds up to one gigabit per second, which would take about 10 seconds to download an HD movie and is about 30 times the average speed for Madison.

“The existence of that MUFN fiber enables us to connect different government offices but is also a major catalyst for providing Internet service to neighborhoods,” says Kronberger, Madison’s Chief Information Officer.

Madison is currently extending the fiber network to public libraries, community centers and schools, with additional plans to run fiber to six water towers for future wireless connections. This city is also aiming to start a pilot program offering free or reduced-cost Internet service for neighborhoods with low-income families.

The 2014 budget includes $150,000 for this effort that will carry over to next year. To move the process forward, the city’s Digital Technology Committee recently sent vendors a request for information that was due Nov. 17, narrowing the potential pilot areas to Allied Drive, Brentwood, Darbo-Worthington and Kennedy Heights. Next, the committee will consider the options and craft a request for proposals.

“It’s critical that the solution we come up with is a three-pronged approach. We need the connectivity for sure, but then we need the hardware and the education as well in order to make this a true solution,” says Flores, President of Worthington Park Neighborhood Association. “We can’t just pump in a signal to a neighborhood and say we’re addressing something.”

Carol Caesar is involved in Women of Worthington, and while she does have Internet access at home, she says many in the community don’t.

“Sometimes, people looking around for jobs or housing or something like that – they don’t have access to it. They have to go all the way to the library or something like that,” she says. “When you get to be a certain age, you can’t do all that walking. It’s kind of hard for you to get up there.”

The pilot will initially focus on low-income areas or neighborhoods identified as challenged but, if successful, the program could expand to other parts of the city.

That process could be complicated, however, due to governance decisions and state statutes. At least 19 states, including Wisconsin, have legislative barriers to the creation of community networks, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that supports the creation of community broadband.

In Wisconsin, state law lists a number of conditions that must be met in order to provide Internet service, including a feasibility study and public hearing. An amendment to Madison’s 2015 capital budget allocates $100,000 for the study and planning process for a co-op Internet utility as well as $250,000 in 2016 for capital costs involved in implementation.

“I believe [the statute] attempts to really limit what municipal governments can do, but it does provide some possibilities if you follow the procedures in there,” Kronberger says.

Across the country, other battles with large Internet service providers are playing out and the Federal Communications Commission is considering a case involving Chattanooga, Tenn., that could set a precedent allowing municipalities to create community broadband networks without restrictions.

“These tools are indispensable these days,” Flores says. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why this technology isn’t available to everybody who wants it.”

District-wide access

In schools, the Madison Metropolitan School District is planning to implement a one-to-one computing model over the next five years, with a device available to every student when they need it.

“We are working in the 21st century with 21st century learners,” says Cindy Green , the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. That requires access to and ability to navigate technology with ease.

“The instruction drives every decision that we make and the technology is a tool that gives students and teachers access to things they could not access in the classroom,” says Beth Clarke, director of instruction technology and media services.

Clarke says teachers will ask her what to do with kids who come to them without a device or Internet at home. This effort is helping address that need and once kids get a device, Clarke says, they rarely require much extra instruction.

“These kids are born differently than we are. They have this type of brain that can learn quickly how to use a device,” Clarke says. “They quickly even out in the classrooms.”

This year, the planning portion of the program is starting in six schools: Whitehorse and Sennett middle schools, and Shorewood, Sandburg, Gompers and Huegel elementary schools.

The district has not decided whether students will be able to take the devices home and that decision will ultimately fall on individual schools.

“If they feel comfortable letting those devices go home, then that is what’s going to happen,” Clarke says.

To use the devices to their full potential at home, however, would require Internet access and schools are exploring how to offer that. They are considering working with community centers, offering time before or after school to use the devices or the possibility of checking out hot spots.

“Right now our focus is open to whatever works for that school and that community,” Clarke says.

As the phases of implementation continue, the district will continue to adapt and adjust its plan, allowing for flexibility along with advances in technology.

“I think that part of what’s very exciting about the plan is the unknown, knowing technology is changing every single day,” Green says.

“It’s our job to help close that digital divide, and one way we believe we’re going to help do that is through our technology plan over the next five years.”

Beyond access

Beyond basic access, there’s also a large gap in knowledge on how to navigate the Internet, set up an email address or apply for a job online.

According to the Pew study, the largest reason people don’t use the Internet is that it’s not relevant — they’re just not interested, it’s a waste of time or they’re too busy. A close second, however, is usability — it’s too difficult, they’re too old to learn or they don’t know how. This usability factor tops even price and accessibility as a barrier to using the Internet and is generally considered the second level of the digital divide.

“If they don’t know how to use it, it’s not doing anybody any good,” says Alison Ahlgrim, assistant director of the East Madison Community Center.

At the Literacy Network, a Madison nonprofit working to improve adult literacy, computer skills are now incorporated into classes on reading and writing.

“[We] really started to see that many people in our community still lack the understanding of how to open up Microsoft Word and just type a letter or write a resume, something that many people take for granted,” says Literacy Network executive director Jeff Burkhart.

“You can’t apply for a job at Copps if you don’t know how to use a computer,” Burkhart says. “There’s a significant number of people in our community who can’t do that.”

Little data is available on the number of Madison residents who struggle with Internet skills, but Burkhart says about one in seven adults in Madison struggle with reading and writing skills and he thinks that the digital divide affects at least 60 percent of those individuals.

“We know that the impact is pretty broad,” he says.

The Literacy Network recently partnered with the Madison Public Library to offer “Skills in Computers and Literacy for Employment” classes, or SCALE. The library provides the laptops and the space and the Literacy Network coordinates volunteer tutors.

“As we move forward and technology becomes more ubiquitous, we know that our students are going to fall further and further behind if we’re not supporting them in gaining the skills they need with technology,” Burkhart says.

Recognizing the divide

The library, schools, city and others are all trying to work together as they embark on various projects and many agree the biggest first step is simply realizing the divide exists.

“Not everybody who needs to be on can get on,” Flores says. “There’s a barrier right there, that’s a shortcoming and that’s a failure of our community.”

Many have compared the adoption of Internet usage to the expansion of electricity — once considered a luxury, it is now an expectation.

“We live in an information age — it’s the way people get news, it’s the way people connect to community, are involved, spend their free time,” Kenney says. “I don’t want to say it’s a human right in any way, but it’s a part of the time we live in.”

Mickells says he thinks the first hurdle is recognizing that this is an important issue in the community.

“I think it mirrors a lot of disparity that we’ve already seen, the equity challenges in the community. The have-nots are going to be primarily underserved,” he says. “I think just being able to recognize so that we can begin to take action toward it is huge in itself.”

Flores believes connecting to the world can have a big impact on how people relate to neighbors living right next door.

“That connectivity that you have to the Internet, to the whole world of information, ultimately helps you better relate to people right next door,” Flores says. “Within a swipe of your finger or key stroke [you can] generate ideas for how your community can get together.

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