The need to improve computer literacy 

The Federal Communications Commission proposed an innovative new plan this week to dramatically upgrade the nation's broadband Internet system, with a goal of delivering 100Mbps download speeds to everyone within a decade.

The theory behind the plan is simple: dramatically faster Internet means better medical care, improved access to educational material and an open door for all, regardless of income, to information technology. Rural residents, most of whom aren't able to purchase high-speed Internet, will be guaranteed access to worlds currently unavailable to them.

It's a noble and worthy effort, albeit one that will be opposed fiercely by the telecommunications industry, which doesn't want any government interference in its business, and conservatives, who prefer the status quo.

While the FCC's plans will be debated endlessly over the coming weeks and months, one obstacle to its success is, ironically, the objections of many of the people the plan is designed to help.

The FCC released a very interesting report, Broadband Adoption and Use in America, in February, reflecting the results of a nationwide survey of Americans. While it showed that at least 65 percent of Americans have Internet access at home, it also showed that getting the remaining 35 percent online is going to be a difficult task at best.

When the FCC asked the non-adopters why they didn't have Internet, 36 percent of them cited cost. Either they can't afford a computer or the cost of monthly Internet is too much for them. That, in itself, is understandable. New computers aren't cheap -- and neither is even basic Net service if you're on a limited income.

If that was the only obstacle facing universal acceptance of broadband Internet, it could be overcome through a combination of subsidies to both poor individuals and to Net providers. The government already has a similar plan in place to give telephone access to the rural and poor.

But a majority of what the report calls "non-adapters" lack Internet not because of its cost, but because they lack even the simplest concepts of digital literacy. That is to say, giving these people brand new computers and super-fast Internet wouldn't help them, because they don't know how to operate a computer and have no idea where to acquire those skills.

Digital literacy is a problem nationwide. The FCC survey showed that only 44 percent of all Americans understood the term "operating system." Only 40 percent knew the terms "spyware" and "malware." The term "reload" received the biggest positive response at 61 percent.

Even more troubling, 29 percent of Americans said they didn't recognize any of the six basic computer terms presented to them.

Of the 22 percent of non-adopters who don't use the Internet due to digital literacy issues, many cited fears of "all the bad things that could happen to me if I use the Internet." There is currently no mechanism to educate these people about the benefits of the Internet and no infrastructure to help them put that knowledge to use.

Another 19 percent of non-adopters said they didn't have Net access because they questioned its relevancy to their lives. Many of these people see the Internet as a waste of time. (After seeing a useful tool like Facebook being overrun by Farmville and Mafia Wars, and reading endless Twitter updates about grocery shopping, one is inclined to agree.)

The FCC asked these non-Net users what it would take to get them online. Roughly half the respondents said they'd be willing to pay around $25 a month for broadband Internet. Roughly one-third said they didn't know. And a troubling one-fifth of those surveyed said there was nothing that would incite them to enter the digital age, even with a free computer and Internet.

The FCC's goal of expanding broadband access to all is well worth exploring. It's likely, though, that turf battles between the telcoms will prevent that from happening in the next decade.

Something that is more doable, and more cost-effective, is to use our resources to hire teachers to conduct computer literacy classes. The Internet isn't just an area of porn and meaningless blog posts, it's an essential tool to obtain a job, apply for government benefits and to communicate with friends and family.

Taking a portion of the billions that would be necessary to build a super-fast network and applying it to bring all Americans, even the most reluctant of them, into the digital information age would be a wise investment. It would pay off in better education results for children and a better quality of life for others.

It'd also reduce the unemployment rate for teachers and IT professionals. It makes so much sense, in fact, that it probably will never happen unless the president and Congress push heavily for it. I hope they do.


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