Digital poverty "is the civil rights issue of our time," says Matthew Bauer, an entrepreneur who's made it his business to crusade against it. "Without a mobile phone, you can't get housing or a job," he notes.

According to Pew Research, 77% of Americans today own a smartphone, but 36% of those earning less than $30,000 still do not, and a growing share of poor Americans have a smartphone but not broadband access at home. "This reliance on smartphones... means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens," writes Monica Anderson, a research associate at Pew Research Center. She notes the "homework gap," or the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don't.

Bauer, along with co-founders Amy Tucker and Jim Kenefick, launched Sparrow, a mobile phone service provider with a mission to bridge the digital divide. Sparrow offers cell phone service to retail customers in the U.S. at competitive rates, while contributing to projects both at home and abroad that make a positive social impact. For every new customer Sparrow signs on, someone in need gets a new smartphone or service, through one of Sparrow's impact partners. The company is working with programs providing mobile access to refugees in Texas, homeless youth in Chicago, and disadvantaged people across the San Francisco Bay area. Sparrow has also donated devices to Black Girls Code, Worldreader and the Cherie Blair Foundation.

Before launching Sparrow, Bauer and his co-founders started ConnectSpaceVI and prior to that, Better World Telecom, a B2B service provider that is a founding B Corp, with a strong social mission. And they have committed much of their time over the years helping to design and set up programs that combat digital poverty on the ground, as well as training people to run them.

As income gaps increase around the world, the digital divide between the wealthy and the poor, between urban and rural, and between young and old, exacerbates the problem of leaving people behind, and not only economically. Digital access is opportunity, and many governments and charitable organizations make it a priority. I remember once hearing a politician from India speak about how providing digital access was so much more important than providing food. Food doesn't last, but people with access to information can create livelihoods for themselves that can be maintained over time. Digital access is a key to self-sufficiency, and often to freedom from oppression. Women's empowerment groups often focus on the importance of digital access.

As the rich world grows wealth through technology, it is increasingly important for basic technological infrastructure to be available to all. One of Sparrow's key nonprofit partners, TechSoup Global, has an interesting model it has developed over the past 30 years. It is a hub (or a tech-soup kitchen), that coordinates the approval of organizations to receive technology donations from dozens of leading companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Adobe. It then provides technology solutions to accredited charities for free or at a discount. Sparrow launched in 2014 with help from TechSoup and its more than 250,000 U.S. nonprofit members who were strongly advocating for more mobile options and focus to be added to the community. TechSoup advocates on behalf of its members for access to all aspects of the technology paradigm, including cutting edge solutions. It recently announced a partnership with the Blockchain Trust Accelerator for global validation services and smart contracts for nonprofits.

Digital access doesn't instantly solve all the problems of the poor, however. Elizabeth Losh, a digital media professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, cautions against an evangelical "techno-missionary impulse" she sees coming out of the US and into places like Africa and Asia. For example, financial inclusion projects in poor parts of the world that involve smartphones might be bad for women, where the men control the family phone. "Women who had been hiding cash around the house were able to control that cash," says Losh. Or, "When you send a kid home with an iPad, but the household doesn't have the money for broadband access, he's not going to be learning Photoshop."

Losh says that in her work she focuses on learning about a specific context and listening to what people actually want. "What happens when we allow young people to take the lead?" she asks. "We need to get beyond just digital access, and look at the terms of participation" in the digital society.

Meanwhile Bauer is excited about the possibilities. Because of how robust networks have become, "it's now possible for Sparrow's retail customers to proactively affect huge numbers of disadvantaged people," with carefully designed projects run by well-trained, culturally sensitive leaders.

Published on: Sep 7, 2017