Washington state ranks No. 1 in the nation for broadband adoption, network speeds and economic structure according to a study released this December by TechNet.
And yet, broadband access is not universal in the state. Barriers still exist between people and technology — especially for communities of color and low-income communities.
“There’s a lack of access at home, and there’s a lack of language capabilities, which creates another barrier,” said Amy Hirotaka, outreach coordinator for the Communities Connect Network.
Communities Connect Network is a statewide coalition of public and private organizations working to make Washington state a leader in “digital inclusion,” a social movement promoting access to technology and technology education for disadvantaged individuals.
“There’s a lack of those resources in communities of color that have created a need for this,” Hirotaka said. “Communities of color do not access the Internet as much from home. … If they’re low income, it’s not going to be the biggest priority to access the Internet.”
The network receives funding from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), a grant program associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The $4.7 billion grant program was created to promote the development and adoption of broadband throughout the United States, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.
Access to broadband is charted in areas, but not often in communities, making it difficult to tell who is limited. An Economics & Statistics Administration nationwide report indicated that 81 percent of Asian households and 72 percent of White households had broadband at home, compared to 57 percent of Hispanic households and 55 percent of Black households.
Hirotaka said the major barrier to broadband access is cost. Some Internet service providers work to mitigate this. Since 2011, CenturyLink and Comcast have offered 1.5 Mbps internet for about $10 and offer $150 netbook.
David Keyes, Seattle’s Community Technology Program Manager, said the city still sees particularly lower-income communities and new immigrants relying on public computer labs for access to the Internet and computers. Sometimes, he said, disadvantaged community members opt to buy smartphones — a cheaper alternative to maintaining broadband at home.
The City of Seattle is tackling the issue of access by partnering with broadband developer Gigabit Squared to make use of excess optical fiber the city had. The two recently announced they would develop and operate an ultra high-speed, “fiber-to-the-home/fiber-to-the-business” broadband network.
The City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology also works to improve access, providing free Internet connections for community organizations who offer technology training.
The goal? “Trying to reach tech underserved and disadvantaged communities,” Keyes said. “Even before the city had its first website, we started saying, ‘If we’re going to put content on the web, we have to make sure citizens have access to it.’”
The city’s Tech Matching Fund gives money to projects that promote digital literacy — like the Chinese Information and Service Center’s (CISC) “Come on! You are part of it!” program, which hosts two civic engagement and digital media production training camps for 20 immigrant youth.
To combat some language barriers, Karia Wong, who works at the CISC’s Computing Lab, said her center teaches in English and Chinese. The center’s BTOP allotments will run out in the next year, leaving the program looking for alternative sources of funding.
Wong finds that children and seniors access technology education more often, but she worries about the adults — often new immigrants — missing it.
“We have a hard time catching the people in the middle,” she said. For those working adults, they just don’t have time.”
Hirotaka said there are also generational differences. Children will need more education in technology if they don’t use it at home or learn from their parents.
The Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to preparing students of color for higher education in STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math) fields, teaches students basic technology they might not have seen at home.
August Aldebot-Green, a spokesperson for TAF, said Asian and Pacific Islander students are often inhibited by stereotypes.
“That’s to their detriment because they do need to learn this stuff from the ground up,” he said.
TAF is part of a larger movement to bring STEM education to students before college. TAF aims to break the cycle of people of color not participating in STEM fields by bringing in successful professionals of color to mentor the students.
“A lot of the kids that come into our programs thinking they’re not good at STEM,” Aldebot-Green said. “They’re getting that from the media, they’re getting that from teachers, they’re getting that from stereotypes. … They discover they are good at those things, and they go back and teach their younger siblings.”
Photo Caption: Technology Access Foundation (TAF) student graduated from high school excelling in science and technology courses, going on to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on scholarship. Photo courtesy of TAF.