The new push to close the digital divide

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Ferman Fletcher is a full-time carpenter dreaming of a life in music. But this resident of Washington, D.C. never thought he could make a serious go as a musician – that is, until he took a computer-training course and discovered overwhelming opportunities on the Internet.

As Fletcher learned to navigate the Web, a light bulb went off: the Internet could help him radically change his life. “If I can pursue this music thing in earnest in my spare time, that’s a possibility that I won’t have to do the carpentry on much of a full-time basis,” he said.

He’s been quickly learning how to record his own songs and spread them across the Web. Already, he’s created his own Web site: “I punch that joint into any computer anywhere, anytime, and it’s my Web site,” he says. It’s thrilling.”

Is Fletcher just a late bloomer on the Internet? Maybe. But he’s also been a victim of the digital divide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of the country – many of them African American – still does not have a high-speed Internet connection, access to technology, or the knowledge to use it. While high-speed Internet is a necessity in today’s world, millions of people either can’t afford it or live in areas where it’s unavailable.

The federal government is finally starting to recognize the importance of bridging the digital divide so that everyone can share in the Internet’s benefits while helping to turn around the economy. President Barack Obama and Congress allocated $7.2 billion in the recovery package to help connect the nation. Now the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that makes the rules governing the Internet, is in the process of creating a “national broadband plan” to figure out how to spend the funds.

The FCC is holding a series of workshops in August and September where consumer advocates, community groups, and the industry can meet with the agency’s staff to help craft the national broadband plan. The public can suggest meeting topics and propose questions. The meetings are taking place in Washington, but the FCC reportedly has plans to go on the road to meet with the public in the fall.

While the recovery funds are a good first step, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for what’s truly needed to make broadband ubiquitous. That’s why this national plan – and the direction it will provide to Congress – is so important. The political decisions we make in the next few years will determine if we’ll truly have Internet for everyone, or whether it will remain a luxury.

Communities of color are most affected by the digital divide. While 55 percent of white households subscribe to broadband, only 40 percent of minority households are connected.

And although a Pew Research Center study released last month shows that more people, particularly African-Americans, are reaching the Web through mobile devices like cell phones, millions still do not have the equivalent of a home broadband connection.

“You have segregation, basically, and it’s just not fair,” Fletcher says.

For Fletcher, the digital divide still dogs him even with his newly acquired technical skills. He has to rely on a community center and the public library to get online, his music dream is dependent on when these places are open and computers are available.