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Commentary: Bridging the digital divide in California

Commentary: Bridging the digital divide in California

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California prides itself on being an innovation hub, advancing cutting-edge technology to improve the functionality of nearly everything we touch.

From the cars we drive to how we get groceries, technology has become so ingrained in our daily lives that it’s easy to take for granted.

Just like we presume our electricity will generate light and warmth for our homes or that our taps will produce clean water, we expect to have reliable access to the internet to book a doctor’s appointment, pay bills, do homework or communicate with loved ones. Even health systems have tapped into web-based technology to improve patient outcomes. There are video visits, online symptom checkers and the ability to message a doctor. In fact, Federal Communications Commission attorney Jessica Rosenworcel has frequently spoken about the adverse impact on education and what she calls the “homework gap” caused by the digital divide.

But the troubling reality is that more than a quarter of California homes are still without wireline broadband internet, and, of these homes that do not subscribe, the majority are low-income, less educated, African American or Latino.

According to U.S. Census data, households in cities with the highest poverty rates are up to 10 times more likely than those in higher earning communities not to have wireline broadband at home, with more than 60% citing a combination of a lack of relevance, lack of digital skills and fear as the main barrier.

Think for a moment about these facts:

— 70% of teachers assign homework that requires broadband access.

— 86% of office-based physicians rely on electronic health records to share patient information.

— 80% of Fortune 500 companies require applicants to apply online.

As technology advances, people who don’t understand how the internet is relevant to their lives, don’t have a computer with which to access the internet, or who struggle with the cost of the service, fall further behind those who are connected. The cruel irony of the digital divide is that as technology becomes more intuitive and embedded in healthcare, education, and employment, people who would otherwise reap tangible, much-needed benefits are left at the greatest disadvantage.

For this reason, my company, Comcast, has partnered with schools and school districts, libraries, government agencies and nonprofit community partners across the nation to address this important issue.

Eight years ago, Comcast launched its broadband adoption program, Internet Essentials, which provides low-income households with low-cost internet service at home, the option to purchase a subsidized computer, as well as access to a full suite of digital literacy training materials, in print, online, and in person.

Since 2011, more than 8 million low-income Americans have been connected to the internet at home through Internet Essentials, 90% of whom did not have internet service at home before they signed up through the program. This includes more than 1 million residents across California, which leads the nation in Internet Essentials participation – nearly 165,000 low-income individuals have been connected in the Sacramento area alone.

Though originally designed for low-income households with school-age children, in August, Comcast announced it was significantly expanding Internet Essentials eligibility to include all qualified, low-income households in its service area.

This expansion is especially significant for Californians who rely on Medi-Cal, which covers one in three residents, half of all Californians with disabilities, more than 1 million seniors, and nearly 4 million adults. It is incumbent upon companies and community organizations to bridge the digital divide in order to improve health, education and employment opportunities for those who are most vulnerable.

My company is committed to joining its community partners in the effort to empower people, enrich communities and provide everyone with the necessary resources to cross the digital divide.

David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer for Comcast NBCUniversal. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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