'Digital Divide' a Threat to Education and Economy, Local Tech Leaders Say

A task force in Lakeland, Fla., is focused on the educational, cultural and economic gap between communities that have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet and those that don't.

(TNS) — LAKELAND — Local technology leaders will discuss how to prevent communities from falling into an achievement and participation gap caused by a lack of fast, reliable access to the digital world.

A roundtable discussion will be held at 5:45 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of City Hall, 228 S. Massachusetts Ave. It is expected to last until 7:30 p.m. A reception provided by Charter Communications, the owner of the Spectrum internet service, will precede the event at 5 p.m.

The "digital divide" is an expected educational, cultural and economic gap between communities that have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet and those that don't.

Commissioner Don Selvage, the chairman of the mayor's broadband task force, will moderate the event. Reducing the digital divide is one of the task force's founding purposes.

"And what I think is the most important," Selvage said. "It's where I think the government's role is mandatory.

"Most of us take for granted internet access. We gripe about it, but we pay it ... and we have eight to 12 devices. But there are a number of people who don't have access," he said, like the poor and seniors. "These are the people who are left out, and that's called in the parlance of the day the 'digital divide.'"

During the gathering, Selvage will direct the panel comprising:

  • Tina Barrios, Polk County School District's information technology director.
  • Terry Brigman, Lakeland's IT director.
  • Sallie Brisbane, a media-business owner and former educator representing Lakeland neighborhoods.
  • Leah Brown, the government-affairs director for Charter Communications.
The divide means some are steeped in technology and a wide breadth of information that can inspire careers or provide life experiences that translate to basic job requirements, while others aren't, Brisbane said.

This means more than educational portals and classroom supplements, but popular culture, social networks, news and information, and outlets for creativity.

Parents play a key role because their experience and knowledge will inform that of their kids.

"It's very much like having a parent help their child with Algebra II when they themselves didn't finish algebra," she said.

"One of the things we tend to overlook is the training and awareness, and when I say awareness, not that young people don't understand how important technology is — they're digital natives — but responsible usage is an area that needs to be addressed," Brisbane said.

Carter touts low-cost option

Charter Communications, whose Spectrum internet service is available in Lakeland, is offering a basic internet package to qualifying homes for $15 a month.

Spectrum Internet Assist is a cable internet connection advertising 30 megabit-per-second download speeds and 4 megabit-per-second upload speeds available to households with a member eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at school, is in a community that broadly qualifies under the federal school-lunch program, or is older than 64 and receives Supplemental Security Income.

"Assist is an important next step in providing true high-speed connections to those who would otherwise continue to face a digital inequality in this country," Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said in a news release. "It's crucial for cable and broadband providers like us to play a role in bridging the digital divide so that everyone has access to the information and tools they need to succeed in today's economy."

More information about the service can be found at www.spectruminternetassist.com or at 844-525-1574.

Brigman, Lakeland's IT director, said the Charter offering was a welcome addition.

"This is one that is an opportunity for folks in that digital divide to get a service that will meet their needs. We're happy charter is providing it, and we hope some of the other providers (will create low-cost options) as well," Brigman said.

Lakeland may expand free Wi-Fi

As for the city's planned role in reducing the digital divide, SurfLakeland is set for a major upgrade. The free, city-run wireless internet connection can be accessed in municipal buildings and in certain parts of the city, particularly downtown.

Commissioners have expressed a desire to expand this network into neighborhoods, utilizing the city's existing fiber optics network for bandwidth. Currently, outside of the government buildings, the connection is spotty. The commission is expected to fund an upgrade in its next annual budget.

©2017 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.