Archive for the ‘ Digital Divide ’ Category

Will the Internet remain an “all you can download” buffet?

Last week I wrote about the incoming FCC plan for universal broadband access across the U.S., an expensive and somewhat controversial initiative that begs the question of whether high speed Internet access is not just a privilege but a right.

The plan has been hit by fierce pushback from major cable companies since it was announced Tuesday. No surprise there. A major provision of the FCC’s plan is to auction off spectrum once used for broadcast in order to expand wireless networks to rural areas not serviced by the private sector. The broadcasters who now own that spectrum aren’t about to just give it up for nothing.

Ironically enough, I found myself out to dinner with a group of Elon faculty and communications professionals that included a Time Warner Cable regional executive on the day the FCC’s plan was announced.  Naturally, he didn’t see the FCC’s current plan as the answer to the issue of broadband access. Nor was he crazy about Google’s initiative to poke its head into the ISP business by laying out “dark fiber” cables that can offer much faster access in urban areas.

But he didn’t dismiss the issue either, instead proposing that the problem with high-speed Internet isn’t one of access, but of demand. ISPs can extend broadband to rural areas but aren’t likely to get everyone to sign up, either because they can’t afford it or don’t see the value in the service. Even some in favor of universal access acknowledge, as Slate tech wrtier Farhad Manjoo does at the end of this piece, that only about two-thirds of those with access to broadband actually sign up. If the government can find a way to subsidize the cost through some form of tax credits, it would be easier for private ISPs to bring broadband to more of the country.

This concept is similar in spirit to one proposed in Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet: and how to stop it,” a book I’m now reading for class that offers a thorough look at how online access has been shaped through the decades. Zittrain is highly critical of non-generative models that limit what a consumer can gather online (think AOL 15 years ago or perhaps the iPad today). But he does point out that ISPs who wall off parts of the Internet could subsidize the cost of access by charging websites or search engines for a spot in their “walled gardens” of content accessible to customers. The revenue stream would allow the ISP to offer access at reduced rates, or maybe even for free.

Proponents of net neutrality probably cringe at this thought. The Internet should be open and free for all, they argue, without restrictions on content. That’s laudable in spirit, but the reality is that someone has to pay for the high speed access. If the government can’t afford to pay for the infrastructure, and it’s not profitable for the private sector, than the only solution is charging websites themselves for distribution. As long as consumers know they’re only getting a la carte portions of the Internet, they might be OK not having the all you can eat model. It’s better than having no access at all, which is the status quo for far too many in this country right now.

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High-speed Internet: a right or a privilege?

Americans have long accepted K-12 education as a right for all. Debate now rages on whether basic health care also qualifies in that category.

But what about high-speed Internet?

That’s the question that will leap to the forefront with the F.C.C. poised to announce this week an ambitious plan to spread broadband access to the entire country. This proposal has been eagerly anticipated for several months, and it came up frequently during my research last semester on the Digital Divide as sign of hope on bridging the technology gap in this country.

It’s not as simple as a government patch, however. The involvement of the public sector in the business of Internet service providers not only costs taxpayers billions, but it tiptoes into the realm of free-market meddling that arouses intense criticism for hampering business growth. Already major cable companies are lining up in opposition for the F.C.C.’s plans to auction off areas of the broadcast spectrum to allow more space for wireless networks.

Yet if governments don’t take some action, rural Americans will almost certainly keep lagging behind in connection speeds. It simply doesn’t make good business sense to invest in Internet infrastructure servicing areas with a low density of potential consumers. That’s why the F.C.C. wants to offer subsidies to companies that offer high-speed access to rural America. It’s the same principle that has caused nations like South Korea and Finland to roll out expensive initiatives to wire their entire countries so high-speed Internet access is a universal right.

Some more competition among the private sector could also help. Most ISPs have a near monopoly on their markets, leaving them little incentive to improve the speed and breadth of their networks. That’s a big reason why Google is entering the industry through buying up “dark fiber” cables capable of delivering Internet 50 times faster that what most customers are used to receiving. Some have speculated this is a bid not so much to break into the ISP industry but instead to force cable companies to improve their connections speeds, since a faster Internet directly benefits Google’s core products.

Yet even if Internet connections get blindingly fast in the city, they’ll still lag way behind in the country without some government intervention. That changes the way students in rural areas learn, what services rural businesses can offer and what kind of digital content rural residents are capable of receiving. A PR or advertising firm might have to deliver one set of heavy multimedia content (videos, interactive microsites) for one audience while similtaniously running a different campaign for rural areas that doesn’t involve files that won’t download fast enough on the rural connections.

There’s no question that life on the slow end of the Internet is drastically different, and the divide will only grow more pronounced as more and more of society’s business and social functions migrate online. But are the consequences of no high-speed access severe enough to merit major intervention by the public sector? Is it a right we must establish for all no matter where they live? The answers to those questions will ultimately determine whether the digital divide narrows in this country or turns into a chasm.

Not all Internet connections are created equal

internet_speeds

Anyone still remember the dark days of dial-up? Back then logging onto the Internet meant a wait of 30 seconds plus, and every new website gave you enough time to grab a drink or use the bathroom while it loaded.

We might think this level of (dis)connectivity is behind us for good. Most U.S. residents now live in areas where “high speed” access is available, often from multiple providers. But just because something qualifies as “high speed” doesn’t mean it’s fast. Average download speeds vary tremendously across the country. In some cases it’s because there’s simply not a good network in place. Other times it’s because part of the state has very low population density and installing broadband is considered too expensive for private Internet service providers.

So where does your state stack up? The Communications Workers of America has tabulated download speeds from hundreds of thousands of tests. I took their data and made the map above to illustrate what regions have the fastest Internet access. Check out their site yourself for more detailed information, including breakdowns by county.

This isn’t just an issue of convenience. A relatively slow connection (regardless if it’s called “high speed”) dictates what users are able to do on the Internet. With U.S. speeds as a whole much faster than say, five years ago, it’s now common for websites to have embedded video, audio, high-resolution photos and animations — all of which take a long time to load. If your connection is slower than the rest of the country, you’re effectively segregated in the tasks and services you can accomplish online.

In other words, there’s still a form of dial-up in spirit if you’re network is slow. Only this time around, others aren’t waiting. They’re getting things done at work and at home while you’re just trying to upload a basic file.

Fortunately there are a number of developments — some driven by profit, some by charity — that are bringing more residents into the fast lane. I discuss them in greater detail in the digital divide research paper I’ve just completed. But at least for now those with a speedy Internet connection should recognize that it’s something for which to feel fortunate.

The Internet’s benefits still offline for many

Study the digital divide, as I’m doing this semester, and you inevitably come across a number of boorish commentary pieces  making the claim that the digital divide is dead. Just about anyone who wants to has Internet access these days, the argument goes, so what once may have been a legitimate issue 10 years ago is now an outdated cause trumpeted only because journalists are too lazy to find a new tech issue.

Thankfully Elon students (well at least the ones who take advantage of free coffee and donuts) haven’t fallen into that line of reasoning. As a way to raise awareness for One Web Day this morning, my class surveyed several dozen students at the weekly college coffee on campus, asking their thoughts on how many people have Internet access in North Carolina and around the world. As the results of the survey show, the most popular answers were the correct choices — only 61 percent of North Carolinians and 25 percent of people around the world are able to log onto the networks bloggers like us take for granted.

The global figure remains low despite major increases (500 percent or more) in Internet use in Asia, the Middle East and Africa during the past decade. Take a look at all the stats and you’ll see there’s a long way to go before the divide is bridged between those plugged in and those still disconnected. Developing countries already have a host of barriers — many political or cultural — keeping them from reaching economic prosperity. A citizenry unable to use networks that are now essential lifelines for any large business severely handicaps that nation’s prospects.

And bare-bones Internet access is only scratching the surface of the issue. Even in North America, where the figure is a more robust 74 percent, there’s a wide disparity among connection speeds, a real problem as anyone using dial-up knows all too well. Others counted as users only have access at work, school or in libraries, restricting them from leveraging the Internet’s full potential. And then there’s the regular “users” who lack the knowledge and computer skills to do much more than just browse the web. They also stand to fall behind professionally without the right training.

It’s these disparities that we have to keep in mind when thinking about the Internet. Access isn’t as free and easy as we might like to think, and connecting is just the first step.

Technology minus the complications

Technology has the unfortunate reputation (at times both real and imagined) of unnecessarily complicating our lives. It’s why entire segments of the population actively resist or routinely dismiss the latest innovations. It’s why nostalgia for pre-Internet days has evolved into an entire “simple living” movement. It’s why bridging the digital divide requires teaching people how to use new technology as much as giving them all the tech tools.

But new Internet-based innovations, when done right, have exactly the opposite effect as this stereotype. They filter out the clutter and make our favorite things easier to undertake and less complex to master. That’s a theme that ran through the iMedia program’s first Face-to-Face Friday, a rapid fire sequence of 90-second pitches on new communications tools from each of the 37 students. We’re not talking about gadgets for computer geeks. The focus here is simple devices with an interface just about anyone could pick up.

Take Sony’s new e-reader, which reads electronic books like Amazon’s Kindle but without the button pushing that can make the experience confusing or cumbersome. Staying with books, there’s the Espresso Book Machine to print in minutes whatever title you’re looking for at the library. There’s a device allowing scientists to instantly upload data they collect in the field, or for journalists to file a live broadcast anywhere with an Internet connection. Even finding information is getting easier, with Google’s new feature visually organizing related search terms, a news website putting together a “Cheet Sheet” of the top stories being reported across the globe, or advertisements containing interactive features for consumers to get free info and samples on the products that catch their interest. Making connections also get simpler, with a new way to reach people by phone whom you only know through Twitter.

In all these cases, the goal is not to confuse but to streamline, making everyday tasks more efficient and enjoyable. Some might say that opens the door to more complications since it allows us to do much more in a shorter span of time. That may be true, but try convincing the visually impaired to stick with the “simple” life when they can start instantly reading in braille any book they can pull off the shelves.

Universal access: the future of the digital divide

The pace of technological progress is constant, but not necessarily equal.

While more than a billion people worldwide have plugged into the possibilities of the Internet during the past decade, billions more remain disconnected, prevented by socioeconomic or educational barriers from experiencing the most recent advances. For some it’s a lack of infrastructure or resources to log online, while many others with all the tools to access the Internet fail to derive the benefits, harmed by a combination of inferior computer knowledge and a tech industry disinterested in designing programs and products catering to their needs.

The result is what has been termed “The Digital Divide,” a gap with profound influence on those left behind as the rest of the world accelerates into a digital age. The importance of bridging the gap has driven many worthwhile initiatives to provide laptops and Internet access in all school systems or to train displaced workers in computers. But the divide is a moving target. While studies show that the percentage of people with broadband Internet access is rapidly increasing, particularly in developing countries, many are tapping into the Internet without an adequate understanding on how it can lift them out of poverty and into the knowledge economy. Even in the U.S., where access to the Internet is widespread, a just released report from the Communications Workers of America shows that the average download speed varies dramatically by region with only 38 percent of rural residents subscribing to broadband, limiting the ability of some to leverage the web’s full potential. All the while, others who have long enjoyed technological resources are moving on to Web 2.0 and interactive mediums that will prove key in future opportunities for employment.

The purpose of my research project this semester is to look not just at how this divide exists today but whether it will exist in the future given the rapid development of easily accessible and affordable Internet applications. Will the devices and technologies ubiquitous in the society of the coming decades level the playing field, or will certain demographic groups be unable to adapt and utilize each new technology coming online? Will all youth raised in the current age grow up with the understanding of how to navigate the Internet, or will the training and knowledge needed to capitalize on future technology be exclusive to those with access to the best schools and teachers? What industries are tailoring their services and products for mass use across former knowledge and financial barriers, and which will only derive benefit to the previously initiated? Can innovations created for audiences in the developed world still be integrated into third-world cultures in a manner that can lift those communities out of poverty?

My research will examine current usage trends for various aspects of Web 2.0 to predict which are headed to universal accessibility and which will remain reserved for select groups. It will cite experts on the developments of Web 3.0 to determine whether the seamless blend of the virtual and physical worlds could be universally applied to all societies. It will look at ongoing initiatives to bridge the digital divide, efforts undertaken by a range of multi-national corporations such as Nokia Siemens Networks, public entities like the United Nations and non-profit organizations such as the Investor Group Against Digital Divide. It will evaluate the $7.2 billion earmarked in the U.S. federal stimulus package for increasing broadband access. The report will assess the results of these initiatives and what new efforts on the horizon are likely to yield.

The findings will be presented in a dynamic, interactive format that shows how widespread, or narrow, various technologies will permeate across different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Viewers will be able to navigate through a selection of current and developing Internet technologies and see which are on the path to becoming universally accessible, and which still require more effort to ensure no one misses out on the tremendous opportunities offered by the Internet of the future.