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Feb 13
New Programs, Data Show Progress in Bridging the Digital Divide
By Curt Kolcun, V.P., Microsoft U.S. Public Sector
In the past two posts in this series, we’ve touched on the challenges our nation faces in bridging the “Digital Gap” and why those problems are difficult to solve. Today, we’d like to talk about where we are seeing progress. Fortunately, we have a lot to report. The 2009 economic stimulus package made digital empowerment a national priority by allotting $7.2 billion for national broadband expansion. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently found that 68 percent of U.S. households in October 2010 used broadband Internet, an all-time high.
 
The centerpiece of federal broadband expansion efforts, NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), had spectacular success in 2011. BTOP’s December 2011 quarterly report and year-end review shows that from the first quarter of 2011 to the fourth, the program increased:

• New household and business broadband subscribers from 10,952 to 230,755 (up  219,803 or 2,007 percent)
• New and upgraded network miles from 4,824 to 29,191 (up 24,367 or 505 percent)
• Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) from 11 to 4,163 (up 4,152 or 37,745 percent)

New workstations in Public Computing Centers from 4,268 to 24,512 (up 20,244 or 474 percent). Not only that, the program nearly tripled its projected 2011 goals for new infrastructure and more than doubled its goals for new workstations and broadband subscribers. The number of CAIs exceeded its 2011 goal by a healthy 39 percent.
Despite these successes, cost of both computers and broadband remains a hurdle, especially for low-income rural, African-American, and Hispanic households. Government programs and public-private partnerships are emerging to address this issue. The State Broadband Initiative, another NTIA program, gave $293 million to 56 state programs, including California Connects and the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition.
 
Just last week, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said the agency plans to expand its Lifeline program, which enables low-income Americans to buy discounted phone service. The expansion will include shifting Lifeline’s focus from making basic phone access more affordable to helping ensure more Americans can afford the broadband Internet service that is becoming essential to participating in the 21st-Century economy. According to reports, the program currently serves roughly 10 million people.

On the higher education front, last December the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) debuted MITx, a free interactive online portal to MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which itself offers free access to nearly all MIT undergraduate and graduate course materials. Another prominent program underway to help the country reap the benefits of digital inclusion is Connect to Compete, a public-private initiative launched by the FCC last November that aims to boost digital participation and literacy. The pilot program is launching this spring, with nationwide deployment scheduled for September 2012. More than a dozen cable companies will offer broadband service for $9.95 a month – roughly a quarter the regular price – for two years to eligible low-income families participating in school-lunch programs.
 
Microsoft is proud to contribute to Connect to Compete on multiple fronts, including:

• New $250 laptops and desktops pre-loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium and Microsoft Office
• Supplying the same software to $150 refurbished computers from Redemtech, another Connect to Compete partner
• A free online portal that offers online job skills training and assessments, as well as basic digital literacy in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel

We’re coordinating our work with Connect to Compete with our Microsoft IT Academy Program. The Microsoft IT Academy currently offers Microsoft Office training through retail stores and local K-12 schools, libraries and community colleges in 15 states and will expand nationwide over the next three years. These efforts complement our Elevate America program, as well as our Shape the Future Program’s partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative to provide one million low-income U.S. students access to job skills training and discounted software, hardware and broadband Internet access.

It’s exciting to see innovative, promising projects already underway to overcome the Digital Divide, and we know we’ve just touched the surface. Do you know of other projects that are showing promise in breaking through the Digital Divide? Chat with us on http://twitter.com/Microsoft_Gov with the hashtag #DigitalDivide.

Be sure to join us next week, when we wrap up our series. We’re going to explore some ideas for the future of digital inclusion and promising technologies that could help our nation to grow the economy and lead in innovation.
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