Economic developers usually address the digital divide, the gap between those who know how to use the internet to accomplish tasks and those who don’t, by focusing on physical barriers such as lack of equipment.
But a new report by the Idaho Department of Labor says it will take more than expanded fiber optics to increase the growing divide in digital literacy between rural and urban Idaho.
Economic developers also need programs that counter social barriers to digital literacy, said Esther Eke, regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor and author of the report.
“Flooding a rural community with fiber optics and tablets does not necessarily result in the meaningful use of technology,” she said in her report. “Acquiring digital literacy is a far more formidable task than providing physical access to information and communication technology.”
Several Idaho counties including Bonner, Gem and Valley have concluded that building better internet infrastructure is imperative for economic development. Small cities like Sandpoint rely on the internet to help train workers because there aren’t many nearby colleges, said Aaron Qualls, planning and economic development director for Sandpoint.
“The challenge for us is we don’t have a full-blown four-year college, so we are working with PTECH and our high schools to try to create online programs,” Qualls said. “One of the shortfalls we have identified, though, is a lack of broadband internet. We are working to roll out high-speed internet to our business districts and our residents.”
Efforts like this are common, as are initiatives to get computers into libraries and schools. Only 52 percent of Idahoans use a laptop and 41 percent use a desktop computer, according to the Department of Labor. Those who don’t are more likely to be elderly, poor, and less educated, Eke said.
Only 54 percent of Idaho residents who earn less than $20,000 a year have access to internet, while more than three in four Idahoans who make more than $35,000 do. Similarly, 62 percent of Idahoans with less than a high school diploma have internet, while 91 percent of Idaho households with a bachelor’s degree or higher do.
Encouraging more people to purchase internet services or use public computers will help the rural communities that are expanding broadband systems, Eke said.
“In working on this, I was a little surprised that there are still huge discrepancies between Ada County and some of the smaller counties and that there is still work to be done on physical barriers,” Eke said. “But, there is also this other element to it that people don’t really talk about.”