President John F. Kennedy established a Peace Corps in 1961. Fifty years later, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that a Digital Literacy Corps would be created. Presumably, it will mean that hundreds of thousands of individuals can teach and promote digital literacy to the 82 million Americans who could be taking advantage of broadband networks but who remain offline. Will this Digital Literacy Corps be a 21st Century Peace Corps?

I applaud the FCC for successfully juggling many diverse interests when it created the National Broadband Plan last year. The plan, as presented to Congress, includes a roadmap for increasing broadband access and adoption throughout America. In October, the FCC announced a new public-private initiative to increase broadband adoption, Connect to Compete. Almost $4 billion has been pledged by the private sector to support this initiative. Next, the FCC will launch a Digital Literacy Corps that will start by helping 5.5 million households with children on free lunch programs and no broadband. This program, the National School Lunch Program, operated by the USDA, identifies students of households at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Using this established metric, students from families who are part of this group are prioritized to receive discounted broadband and digital services through Connect to Compete. There is a strong identified correlation that households with students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program do not have broadband at home. 

The Digital Literacy Corps is not a new concept. At Net Literacy (disclosure: I work at Net Literacy), thousands of students have participated in a statewide Digital Literacy Corps since 2003. In 2009, I co-authored an FCC filing with the US Internet Industry Association and later submitted a second filing, both recommending a Digital Literacy Corps. Our recommendation was incorporated into the National Broadband Plan, and we were one of two organizations credited for this suggestion.

These recent FCC announcements have received wide acclaim, but now the hard work begins. To meet the promise of the plan, here are four recommendations:

1. Students should comprise the bulk of the Digital Literacy Corps.
As a seasoned member of the statewide Digital Literacy Corps, I believe that we should tap into the 34 million digital natives—high school and college students—to form the volunteer base. Computer labs would not only reside inside schools and libraries as announced by the FCC; students would also remain inside the schools and libraries to serve as volunteers. The benefits of such programs are multifold. A Digital Literacy Corps comprised of student volunteers could match students to parents within the same school district, increasing efficiency and strengthening a sense of community. Students also will have a convenient and safe location to stay after school while volunteering. Through this service learning, student volunteers will learn important soft skills, including teamwork and mentoring, and hard skills such as computer refurbishing and tech support.

2. The FCC should establish a goal for Connect to Compete to connect 300,000 new households with students on free lunch programs to broadband by 2012 and a total of 1.5 million new households by 2014.
Today, no goals or milestones have been established for this initiative. Without them, how can we measure the initiative’s success or strategize efficiency? The first priority of the Digital Literacy Corps is to help the 5.5 million households with students on free lunch programs who are not already online. Connect to Compete has billions of dollars in commitments and a growing number of high-profile stakeholders that will provide free installs, training, computers with a starting price of $150, and $9.95 broadband services. As a first step, I would recommend connecting 300,000 new households with students on free lunch programs to broadband by 2012 and a total of 1.5 million new households by 2014. If at least 1.5 million of these highest-priority households cannot be installed by October 2014, then we should ask why. Furthermore, achieving this minimum goal still leaves more than 4 million of the prioritized households still disconnected.

3. This year, the FCC should develop a plan with goals and milestones to help the remaining 76.5 million Americans who are passed by broadband but remain offline.
I applaud the FCC for prioritizing the first 5.5 million households, but much good work remains to be done. The FCC should continue to show its leadership by developing programs that help rural Americans, senior citizens, ethnic and racial minorities, and the other populations with low broadband penetration as identified in the plan.

4. The FCC should increase the effectiveness and efficiency of this initiative.
Many groups with low broadband penetration have one thing in common: the misery of poverty. For the Digital Literacy Corps to be successful, it needs better tools. Offering a $150 computer is a good first step, but it is not the last step. At Net Literacy, we are able to donate computers to our constituents at an organizational cost of about $15 each because our public and private partners donate them to us. Executive Order 12999 encourages the federal government to donate computers to qualified nonprofits, but most federal computers are sold, often for scrap. Using surplus federal computers could lower the hardware cost to some of the poorest of Americans to under $100. This will help remove cost barriers to the poorest of families that this initiative targets, increasing the effectiveness of the Digital Literacy Corps.

Will the Digital Literacy Corps be a successful 21st Century Peace Corps? I’ll be checking in with some of the impoverished and marginalized families that this initiative aims to benefit, and report back in 2012…