The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will propose a National Digital Literacy Corps to help U.S. residents get online as part of a national broadband plan due out next week.
The National Digital Literacy Corps, modeled after other volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, will target communities with low numbers of broadband subscribers, including low-income housing developments, rural areas and tribal lands, said Mignon Clyburn, a member of the FCC, speaking Tuesday during a conference on the digital divide in Washington, D.C.
"The Digital Literacy Corps will mobilize hundreds of digital ambassadors in local communities across the country," she said. "This is about neighbors helping neighbors get online."
The FCC will also propose new spending to improve the digital training efforts at libraries and community centers, and it will plan to launch an online training program for people interested in improving their digital skills, Clyburn said.
The FCC's national broadband plan will focus on ways to get broadband to areas that don't yet have it, but the plan also needs to address the demand for broadband, said speakers at Tuesday's Digital Inclusion Summit, sponsored by the FCC and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More than 90 percent of U.S. residents have access to broadband service, but only about two-thirds subscribe, according to recent surveys.
"Universal broadband and the skills to use it can lower barriers of means and distance to help achieve a more equal opportunity for all Americans," Clyburn said. "But the potential for broadband to be an equalizing force will not be realized if we fail to act. Rather than closing the opportunity gap, absent action, the individual and societal costs of digital exclusion will only multiply."
The FCC and the Knight Foundation also announced a new contest, called Apps for Inclusion, that will encourage developers to create new applications that help U.S. residents take advantage of government and community services online. The contest will reward developers who make government and community services easier to access online or through mobile devices, the FCC said.
During the conference, five members of the public told their stories about how broadband has improved their lives.
Broadband helps 80-year-old retiree Garrison Phillips of New York City research short stories and blog posts he writes and keep tabs on his 103-year-old mother living in West Virginia, he said.
"Because of broadband, I'm in touch with her major caregiver, her doctor if need be, and members of her church, who e-mail me that they have spoken with her, seen my mother that day, and she's doing just fine," he said.
Phillips, a mostly retired actor due to hearing loss, also learns of auditions for television commercials through the Internet, he said. "My agent doesn't telephone me because I can't hear him, he sends me an e-mail," he said.
Broadband will also create new jobs and spur economic growth, but many minority communities in the U.S. are falling behind in broadband adoption, said Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman.
"The cost of digital exclusion is high and growing higher every day, especially in the new economy, especially in these economic times," he said.