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The Digital Equity Act Invests in Digital Navigators to Help Close the Digital Divide

Lawmakers should include funding for digital navigator programs in the next federal infrastructure package.

Many kids learn and socialize online, but the past year's pandemic has demonstrated just how important digital literacy and online connectivity are for families. While progress has been made in boosting connectivity funding in response to the pandemic, connectivity is only a part of the solution. The most vulnerable in rural and urban communities also need to know how best to use the internet.

The next step in supporting children and families in these communities is a fundamental piece of launching successful connectivity programs: digital inclusion. Digital inclusion is all about ensuring that once someone can access the internet, they have the training and support needed to use it. Often, policy solutions only focus on the dollars and cents of deploying networks and supporting broadband subscriptions and devices, but keeping the digital divide closed means that programs also must account for ever-evolving uses of the internet. Digital inclusion ensures that families have the training and IT support it takes to successfully navigate and use the internet for remote work, job training, distance learning, or health care.

The Digital Equity Act, introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Angus King (I-Maine), builds on recent efforts to increase access to broadband by prioritizing digital inclusion. The senators will be pushing for its adoption in the upcoming infrastructure package alongside a historic investment in broadband to ensure that broadband deployment efforts can achieve the most impact.

One solution is to support digital navigators. A digital navigator is a trained, dedicated individual who helps families navigate the intricacies of accessing programs or funding that will get them connected to the internet. Our friends at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) have introduced a Digital Navigator Model, which provides guidance and recommendations for organizations offering digital inclusion services.

Here are just a few ways digital navigators can help families:

  • Inform: Advise them about resources they may not know about, such as device access programs, broadband services, or hot spot distributors.
  • Access: Provide technical assistance for setting up devices, accounts, or enrollments.
  • Maximize: Help them learn how to access social services, like unemployment benefits, SNAP, or mental health resources.

Common Sense has long supported digital inclusion work through our Digital Citizenship Curriculum and is now working with Land O'Lakes and Lead for America (LFA) to support the American Connection Corps, a two-year pilot of the American Connection Project. This privately funded pilot will mobilize 50 leaders to return to their hometowns to coordinate broadband development and digital inclusion. With continued support from local and state policymakers, these efforts could result in long-term digital inclusion support for communities across the country.

Anyone can be a digital navigator, but teachers are stepping into the role and often are tasked with addressing digital inclusion issues without the resources, or training, to do so.

As more connectivity and device funding becomes available to families and schools through the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program, formalized digital navigator programs will be essential to maximizing the impact of these funds.

At a recent listening session with Vice President Kamala Harris on the digital divide, we learned from advocates that as broadband becomes more affordable and accessible to families through government investments in broadband infrastructure, like the American Jobs Plan, digital navigators will be essential to educating people on how to use their newfound internet access to improve their lives and communities. Yet, digital navigators are more than a help line for families to call. They are regional programs with professionals on the ground to guide households through the complex process of broadband adoption and use. They can also provide critical data about the use of the programs and investments to help prioritize new funds' needs based on the information they gather directly from communities.

Common Sense believes all kids need access to quality technology to thrive in a rapidly changing digital world. Not only does internet access give kids the ability to participate in distance learning, but it also helps families access important programs like telemedicine and mental health resources. The digital divide isn't an issue solely of internet access or device access but rather a complex combination. Digital navigators offer a trusted community-based solution that can offer families tailored and effective support to maximize their use of the internet.When states and the federal government invest in digital navigators alongside cost support programs and broadband deployment efforts, policymakers can holistically support communities to keep the digital divide closed for good.

Jennifer Peters
Jen Peters (she/her) is the Senior Advocacy Manager at Common Sense Media, where she supports the organization's advocacy campaigns and initiatives on various issues related to kids and technology. Jen previously managed public safety and community aquatic programs for the University of California, Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District. As an Americorps member, she oversaw education-based programs for Playworks Northern California. Jen was born and raised in the Bay Area, and has a bachelor's degree in Human Development, with a focus on women's development, from California State University, East Bay.