NASW has joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in supporting efforts that ensure broadband Internet access is available to all residents.
Earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that the FCC’s latest national broadband plan is critical to bridging the digital divide that disproportionately affects rural communities, low-income families, minorities, seniors, tribal communities and those with disabilities.
Genachowski said the plan lays out a roadmap to tackle vital inclusion challenges so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of broadband.
The average broadband speed in the U.S. is about 4 megabits per second, placing the nation 18th in the world for broadband speeds.
The FCC’s national broadband plan aims to increase affordable broadband speeds to 100 megabits per second to 100 million households and increase broadband speed to at least 1 gigabit for one library, school or other public anchor institution in every community. Currently, 93 million Americans, including 13 million children, are not connected to broadband at home, Genachowski said.
NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark said at different times in American history, the government has stepped in to ensure people receive electricity, water, sewers and phones — all in the name of improving health and safety.
“Broadband is just as important,” Clark said. “Many services are becoming accessible online only, especially with the rising costs of postage and printing.”
Civil rights groups, including the Leadership Conference Education Fund, have argued that the federal government must address the digital divide because of the serious consequences it could have for disadvantaged minority groups as computer and technological skills become increasingly important in all spheres of American life.
Social worker Diana Stroud, a member of the NASW Board of Directors, is an assistant dean for Alumni Affairs and Advancement at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also a part-time medical social worker at Provena Covenant Medical Center. She said the adage “information is power” is as vital as ever.
“If you can help communities learn how to gather their own information and use it in a way to advocate for their needs and development of the community, then they will develop in such a way that they are self-sufficient and in control of their own destiny,” she said.
Stroud is assisting Kate Williams, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, with a research project that examines the use of “CyberNavigators” at Chicago Public Libraries. These navigators assist patrons in using the library’s computers and Internet connection. These skills are vital in applying for such things as food stamps, social security and other needs, Stroud explained.
The majority of people have access to the Internet only through public places, she said. “Currently we pay for the Internet to be brought into our homes by a commercial company,” Stroud added. “More and more people are not able to afford the cost.”
She noted that in rural communities, people without high-speed Internet may miss out on advancing health services. “New technology will allow physicians to monitor their patients through the Internet,” she said.
Williams said her research project examines how people in local communities are making the transition into the digital age. “Libraries are the center of this because they provide public computing and access to the Internet,” Williams said. “We are observing how librarians help this along.”
So far, research shows a positive outcome for patrons when a CyberNavigator is on staff.
How vital is Internet access? For one thing, Williams said a person is limited in seeking employment without it. “From minimum-wage service jobs on up the ladder, applications are only accepted online,” she said. “Dial-up Internet just does not work for today’s Internet, and fast Internet — broadband — is just not available everywhere, despite what any given ad may seem to say.”
Williams said social workers need to know that the Internet is a social work tool and they need to know how best to direct clients on the Web.
She said social workers can advocate for broadband fairness by “cyberorganizing” — pulling together online resources that can assist clients with their needs. “A critical connection may be a click away, but you have got to know where to click,” Williams said. “Social work students would benefit from taking a course or two in an information school or a communications department.”
Social workers can also help by knowing their “cyberlandscape,” Williams explained. Asking people where they access the Internet and at what cost are two good places to start, she said.
The FCC’s Genachowski noted in his report to the Senate Commerce Committee that broadband access and digital literacy are essential to participate in the economy and democracy. “The FCC has submitted a plan for action, and a call to action that these times demand,” he said.