At least a quarter of American households do not have Internet service at home, and inequalities between those who have access and those who do not are stark. For example, data from the Current Population Survey administered by the US Census Bureau1 shows that among the wealthiest households ($100,000 or more), 97% have computers and 96% have Internet access at home. Among low-income households ($25,000 or less), only 57% of households use computers, and only 49% use the Internet.
A series of programs and initiatives – from Comcast’s Internet Essentials to city programs like Seattle’s Digital Equity Initiative – have been created to address this gap. Most of these programs connect low-income Americans with low-cost offers; some also include digital literacy training and device distribution activities to address other major challenges to broadband adoption. Digital inclusion programs often work in partnership with libraries, school systems, and local organizations to reach intended beneficiaries. These local organizations have the connections and the knowledge about their communities to recruit and support low-income people accessing digital opportunities. And for people just coming online, trusted community anchor institutions and organizations offer a friendly and welcoming place to take the digital leap.
From 2014-2015, the Open Technology Institute partnered with the digital inclusion organization EveryoneOn to develop an assessment framework and a set of evaluation tools to understand the program’s impact and success. EveryoneOn is a digital access platform created to target gaps in broadband adoption through partnerships with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), community organizations, and non-profits. It emerged from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2011 Connect2Compete (C2C) initiative, which was designed to help close the broadband adoption gap by leveraging in-kind commitments from cable companies, technology industry representatives, and nonprofits. In 2013, C2C partnered with the Ad Council to promote the importance of digital literacy skills and motivate individuals to access free resources and trainings offered by partners. The new campaign expanded the public-private partnership model to include more ISPs. With its expanded platform, EveryoneOn was officially designated as a 501(c)(3) organization in 2014. Its activities are designed “to help all Americans access technology through free digital literacy training, discounted high-speed Internet, and low-cost and refurbished computers.”
OTI worked with EveryoneOn to discover and curate the data that would reveal impact and progress towards realizing this mission. EveryoneOn collects data on subscriptions from its partners via an online portal; it also has an enormous network of local partners nationwide as well as strong partnerships with several major ISPs. In keeping with OTI’s previous work on meaningful broadband adoption, we recommended that EveryoneOn document and track its entire spectrum of broadband adoption activities, and broaden its evaluation efforts for a more holistic understanding of which combination of activities leads to the greatest impact. Whereas EveryoneOn and other programs have traditionally offered different combinations of services in different communities, the primary metric of success had been subscription numbers. OTI outlined an expansion of this impact assessment framework to include all of EveryoneOn and its community partners’ digital inclusion activities. We also designed a set of evaluation instruments to be used by EveryoneOn and its partners in order to gather data on the expanded range of activities, with the intention of recognizing the combined impact of all of these interacting efforts and demonstrating them for policymakers and funders.
This toolkit is designed to provide a resource for any organization offering digital services, and is intended to ensure that digital inclusion program activities remain relevant as the digital access framework shifts – there is already evidence of shifts in consumer behavior and industry models from fixed to mobile broadband; and from unlimited data to data caps, surcharges, or throttling. Privacy is also quickly becoming a priority alongside connection speed, and free WiFi across districts or neighborhoods is increasingly available in lieu of home broadband subscription. As broadband connectivity increasingly shapes access to opportunity as well as basic services, we hope that tools included below will help organizations dedicated to increasing digital equity document and leverage their work for the best possible outcomes and to share learnings with their peers, experts, and policymakers.