Too many communities have been left behind as the Internet revolution marches on. In areas of the U.S. underserved by broadband networks – where it might also be too expensive to own a personal computer – adults who went to school too long ago and have not pursued re-skilling programs, and students who do not have Internet access at home or at school, are in danger of never catching up.
Efforts originating in the public and private sectors are trying to change this, but we need to do more. The President’s ConnectED plan to reform E-Rate aims to connect 99 percent of classrooms and libraries within five years. As I’ve argued before, this program is essential for educational equality and equality of opportunity post high-school, and it needs broader support.
On the private side, the Red Hook Initiative (in Red Hook, Brooklyn) has installed free Wi-Fi routers at churches, schools, and other community spaces. With a complimentary program in local schools focused on leadership, employment skills, and STEM training, the initiative has empowered the community to develop services in the present, and students are also better prepared for their futures in the modern economy. With support from local and state governments, successful programs like this could be rolled out to more places where they are needed.
One model for public-private partnerships worth following is what Etsy is doing in the post-industrial community of Rockford, Illinois (at the request of the town’s mayor, Larry Morrissey) and in underemployed communities in New York City. Working with local groups, Etsy has a “craft entrepreneurship” program to teach basic business and computer literacy by boosting existing craft and manufacturing skills.
According to Etsy’s site, “many low-income groups have long had craft and manufacturing skills but are unsure of how to unlock the potential of these skills for income and wellbeing in this day and age.”
In this program, the idea of unlocking existing skills for “this day and age” is the key. While a third of Etsy sellers use the income from selling their handmade goods to cover some household expenses, and 20 percent use the money to boost their savings, this program isn’t fully about money, and it’s not about Etsy either; it’s about bringing more people into the Internet economy and empowering communities to use the Internet as a platform to better themselves and their families.
People are learning how to run a business — even just a small one — with marketing, photography, pricing, and growth strategy lessons; they are making the most of their existing skills; and when the course is complete they are left with an Etsy store that might just provide the supplemental income to push their family over the poverty line.
But the primary and enduring benefit of this program, and others like it, is access to the Internet economy and the pride that comes with being able to do a little more than you could yesterday. Essential connectivity and basic education lay the foundation for individuals to retake control of their careers. First it’s an Etsy store, but then maybe it’s SideCar, UberX, and finally a brand new startup business.. For the wellness of our economy and our society, more communities need access to high-speed broadband and the knowledge that will help them harness the power of the Internet. Tech should support ConnectED and then work with government to ensure universal access.
Eva Arevuo is communications manager for Engine, a San Francisco-based research foundation working with startups and government to create better public policy.