The FCC and Nonprofits: Negotiating a Complicated Landscape

October 13, 2011; Source: Reuters | On Wednesday, the FCC announced an initiative aimed at increasing U.S. broadband adoption rates among low-income households, rural communities, seniors, and minorities.  The Connect to Compete program is a public-private-philanthropic initiative designed to help close the digital divide and reduce unemployment by training individuals in tech skills that are currently in demand by employers.  The announcement identified at least 24 foundations, corporations, and nonprofit partners.

Multi-state digital literacy programs are nothing new, including Intel’s Computer Clubhouse Network (launched in 1993), The Boys & Girls’ Clubs of America Club Tech (initiated in 1999), and the Public Computing Center and Sustainable Broadband Adoption initiatives that were part of the 2009 federal stimulus under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

What’s tricky about coordinating and sustaining these initiatives is navigating the current landscape of digital literacy training providers.  As the MacArthur Foundation points out, digital literacy programs operate through a loosely connected patchwork of schools, libraries, museums, community centers, afterschool programs, and nonprofit organizations.  Many of these programs fill demand for digital skills training that is unmet by under-resourced school systems, and most provide access to computers and high-speed Internet that low-income households cannot afford.  To implement a cohesive national strategy that provides sustained broadband adoption, the FCC will need to maneuver its way through this labyrinth.

Some, in fact, saw yesterday’s announcement as little more than window-dressing  to draw attention away from increased telecomm industry consolidation and decreased broadband coverage, quality, and affordability.  Wednesday’s announcement lacked details on federal funding to sustain or broaden this initiative, and the Connect to Compete site provides little guidance on how nonprofit or philanthropic organizations can partner with the initiative.  But those in the nonprofit sector can provide feedback on yesterday’s announcement directly to the FCC by filing public comments.

What do you think the nonprofit sector can and should do to partner with private and public entities to increase technology literacy in the U.S.?–John Hoffman