Undercurrents: Are Virgin Islanders Crossing the Digital Divide?

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the first in a series of articles examining how the territory is bridging the digital divide.

In the era of instant information access, technological disability has arguably become a serious disadvantage. It has the potential to marginalize vast numbers of people left on the wrong side of the digital divide, dangling with little or no hope of obtaining a fraction of the knowledge that is at other people’s fingertips.

The ramifications are obvious. As knowledge is power, so ignorance begets dependency which soon translates to poverty. “Left out” is left without.

But, of course, there is a vicious circle in play here, because poverty is one of the principle causes for the divide in the first place.

According to the Pew Research Center, national studies show the single most cited reason for a lack of connectivity is expense. Of those who don’t have home broadband access, 43 percent say it’s because of the cost, partly of the computer and especially of the service subscription. That information comes from a keynote address by Lee Raine, director of Internet, Science and Technology Research, to the 2016 Internet Governance Forum – as seen on the Internet.

Another statistic cited in the address: A full 99 percent of people from households earning more than $150,000 are Internet users, (in or outside the home) in comparison to 78 percent in households earning less than $30,000.

There are other reasons for the divide, of course, including skill level, lack of confidence and lack of interest. But expense is the biggest.

Communities around the world have been trying to deal with the problem ever since it became obvious, which is to say almost from the start of the computer age. They are in a race to eliminate the divide before the gap becomes too wide to bridge.

Early efforts in the Virgin Islands were limited and scattered. Focus came in 2010. That’s when a large grant from the National Telecommunications Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program allowed the creation of the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, and the local initiative really took off.

It was definitely coming from behind.

The numbers of people in the Virgin Islands – and in other territories – with Internet access at home were so low that federal officials thought they would skew their data, so they left the territories out of the original study that was undertaken to demonstrate the need for a broadband grant program, according to Anita Davis, a viNGN outreach specialist.

“We were not in the game,” said Davis, who teaches computer literacy and security classes and has introduced thousands of Virgin Islanders to the Internet.

As recently as three years ago, roughly half of the V.I. population didn’t have Internet access at home.

A 2013 Virgin Islands Community Survey published by the Eastern Caribbean Center at the University of the Virgin Islands reported there were 23,796 households in the territory with a working computer and 18,575 households without a computer. Of the total 42,371 households, just 52.38 percent – that is, 22,198 households – had Internet access.

There was not a significant difference between St. Croix and St. Thomas. Their Internet access percentages were 53.1 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively.

St. John, which is widely viewed as more affluent than its sister islands, had an Internet access rate of 68.37 percent. The population numbers are so small, however, that it did not significantly raise the average for the Virgin Islands as a whole.

Some V.I. government departments and agencies, notably Education, Labor and the Division of Libraries Archives and Museums at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, were already offering limited computer access prior to viNGN, but the Public Computer Centers aspect of viNGN increased that significantly.

With the slogan, “Connecting the Virgin Islands to the World,” viNGN has laid fiber optic cable and increased connectivity options. It also has installed a bank of computers at each of 33 public sites, 17 on St. Thomas, 14 on St. Croix and two on St. John. Twenty-two of the centers are in government offices; 11 are in churches and other non-profit organizations. The non-governmental PCCs are staffed by volunteers, the rest by government workers. All are open to the public.

A list of the centers and their hours of operation is online at www.vingn.com.

(Next: a look at how well the PCCs are working to educate and connect Virgin Islanders.) 

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